Joakim Noah, Bulls bully their way past Pacers

Joakim Noah, Bulls bully their way past Pacers
March 24, 2014, 9:15 pm
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Revenge was sweet, as the Bulls (40-31) made sure their second game against the Pacers (51-20) in four days went better than the first meeting, avenging last Friday’s road loss with a similarly emphatic 89-77 win Monday night at the United Center behind a dominant defensive performance and a stellar outing from sixth man Taj Gibson (23 points, eight rebounds), who had previously stoked the flames by calling the Central Division rivals “floppers” following the defeat in Indiana.

After beginning the contest in a 7-0 hole, the Bulls rallied back following their slow start, making it a tight-knit affair, despite Jimmy Butler (12 points, five rebounds, three assists) having to take a seat after picking up two quick fouls. As expected, it was a physical game and while the Pacers’ early offense came from the duo of point guard George Hill (17 points, four assists) and All-Star small forward Paul George (21 points, seven rebounds), the Bulls were much more balanced, with all five starters getting on the board.

But when the Bulls’ 13-4 spurt concluded, Indiana made an 8-0 run of its own, following the back-and-forth nature of the opening period. A offensive rebound and subsequent dunk by Gibson at the first-quarter buzzer trimmed the Bulls’ deficit to 19-15 after one frame.

Gibson propelled the Bulls’ second unit, though the Pacers reserves managed to hold them off in an early second-quarter battle of the benches, with Butler acquiring his third foul to boot, prematurely forcing the swingman to the bench. Behind Gibson, the Bulls seized the lead midway through the period and while it wasn’t a play that made any tangible impact on the game, Pacers center Roy Hibbert—who, along with veteran power forward David West (14 points, nine rebounds), scoffed at Gibson’s “floppers” comment at the Pacers’ morning shootaround Monday—seemingly hit the deck harder than necessary after a benign foul delivered by All-Star counterpart Joakim Noah (10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists).

[WATCH: Taj Gibson dunks all over the Pacers]

Mike Dunleavy Jr. (13 points, eight rebounds, four assists) and backup point guard D.J. Augustin also provided a lift for the Bulls, but as usual, it was a defense-oriented contest between the two like-minded squads. Noah’s versatile all-around game also buoyed the Bulls, but after a Hill three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left before halftime, the hosts went into the intermission trailing, 34-33.

After the break, the Bulls went on a 12-3 run, powered by the forward tandem of former college teammates Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer (nine points, 10 rebounds). The Duke products helped build a double-digit lead and the team as a whole was clearly getting under Indiana’s skin, as their trademark defense muffled the Pacers’ offense, while the Bulls were able to get in a decent scoring rhythm.

Things also began to get chippy, as Butler and West were whistled for double technical fouls, sandwiched between Hibbert and Noah each acquired their fourth foul apiece. Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson (eight points, 10 rebounds) briefly took control of the game for Indiana, scoring six straight points, but his personal exhibition was interrupted by a stirring sequence for the Bulls: Kirk Hinrich (18 points, three assists) ripped the ball out of a too-casual George’s hands on an attempted fast-break layup, then Gibson emphatically dunked home a Butler miss in transition.

Hinrich seemed to get going, knocking down jumpers on consecutive possessions and while the Pacers were able to make it a single-digit affair behind the play of West and Stephenson, heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 64-56 advantage.

Gibson, who wore his emotions in his sleeve, continued to be the catalyst at the outset of the fourth quarter, and the likes of Noah, Butler and Hinrich followed suit, though the Pacers led by George’s individual scoring, hung around, despite Hibbert having to sit with a fifth foul early in the period. Gibson and his partner on the interior, Noah, controlled much of the action, gradually increasing the Bulls’ cushion as the game entered its stretch run.

Following a Gibson baseline jumper, one of several mid-range shots he made on the evening, and a Bulls’ defensive stop, a Hinrich driving layup with 1:47 to go seemed to seal the deal, prompting a portion of the partisan crowd to head for the arena exits.