From the moment Joakim Noah clapped in Roy Hibbert’s face and let out a primal scream on the opening possession, the Bulls were, as Noah likes to say, on edge.
Regular-season games are regular-season games and rivalries, as coaches like to remind, typically are more media angles than anything.
The Bulls prolonged the inevitable with their physical 89-77 victory, denying the Pacers from winning their second straight Central Division title for the first time in 14 years. With the Raptors idle, the Bulls moved into sole possession of the Eastern Conference’s third seed.
Anyone ready for a playoff rematch? Like, now?
Just over 72 hours after fouling out and frustratingly calling the Pacers “floppers,” Taj Gibson flipped his switch. He punished the Pacers for 23 points and eight rebounds, five offensive. And his tip slam on a fast break following Kirk Hinrich’s strip of Paul George on a semi-breakaway proved one of the game’s signature moments.
There were others: Noah, resting at the scorer’s table during a dead ball, smiling as Hibbert walked past him towards the Pacers’ bench with five fouls. David West and Jimmy Butler drawing double technical fouls for jawing during a free-throw situation. And Kirk Hinrich turning back the clock with 16 of his 18 points in the second half.
Noah, who clapped so much he could’ve led an “Up With People” seminar, finished with one of his typical box score stuffers of 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks.
“He’s always been a warrior to me,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “I think he just has the ball in his hands a lot more now. They’ve evolved. He’s obviously a triple-double threat every night.”
The Bulls missed their first seven shots and lost Butler to early foul trouble in a difficult first half. The Pacers led 34-33 at halftime. What, you expected offense? Not between the league’s two stingiest defensive teams, who gave the scoreboard operator a break even as they tried to break each other with physical play.
The game turned when the Bulls ripped off a 12-0 run just after halftime. Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy scored each scored five as the sellout crowd of 21,803 roared.
“This team has been hit hard all year,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They’ve responded to the challenge. There are still areas we can improve upon but all year we’ve found ways to win. And that’s the most important thing.”