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updated: 1/26/2012 7:17 PM

Bulls can't think Eastern Conference finals a given

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  • The Indiana Pacers roughed up the short-handed Bulls on Wednesday, handing them their first home loss of the season. The improving Milwaukee Bucks will try to make a similar statement Friday before the Bulls leave on a two-week road trip.

      The Indiana Pacers roughed up the short-handed Bulls on Wednesday, handing them their first home loss of the season. The improving Milwaukee Bucks will try to make a similar statement Friday before the Bulls leave on a two-week road trip.
    Associated Press

 
 

A few things were obvious after the Bulls suffered their first home loss of the season Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers:

• A team that considers depth one of its greatest strengths will eventually feel the pain of repeated injuries. Luol Deng and Taj Gibson skipped the Indiana game and were missed.

• The Richard Hamilton addition can't be considered a slam dunk for the Bulls just yet.

• There is more to the Eastern Conference race this season than simply waiting for a Bulls-Miami rematch in the conference finals.

First of all, the short-handed thing worked out great for the Bulls against New Jersey and Charlotte. The truth is, they've been coasting against soft competition and haven't beaten a team with a winning record since Jan. 6 at Orlando.

While starting in Deng's place, Ronnie Brewer had one of the best games of his pro career, with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. But the Bulls didn't get much from the bench and certainly missed Gibson's defense.

"There are no excuses," Derrick Rose said after Wednesday's 95-90 defeat. "We can't say we lost the game because we didn't have them. We were up 10 at the half. We lost this game because of us. It hurts."

Deng is planning to play through a torn ligament in his left wrist as soon as the pain subsides, while Gibson is walking without a limp. So it's possible both players could be back when the Bulls travel to Miami on Sunday afternoon for the start of a monstrous nine-game road trip.

At this point, though, no one knows for sure when they'll play.

"Lu is a great leader on this team," Brewer said. "We go through stretches where we're not playing Bulls-style basketball, he pulls everybody together, gets us on the right page. Him and D-Rose are our leaders and we play through those guys."

Against the Pacers, the Bulls 54-44 at halftime, trailed by 7 with four minutes remaining, then launched one of their patented comebacks. Trailing by 2, Joakim Noah smothered Indiana's David West defensively, grabbed a defensive rebound with 37 seconds left and the Bulls had their chance.

But the Pacers did a nice job of crowding the lane and using the 6-foot-8 Paul George to guard Rose. He headed toward the basket and tossed a pass in the corner to Brian Scalabrine, who missed an open 3-pointer.

Don't put too much into Scalabrine's miss. The Bulls shot 21.4 percent in the fourth quarter. The bench went 0-for-7 early in the quarter, Rose scored just 1 basket and Hamilton went 0-for-4 with a pair of free throws.

Hamilton has looked good so far, but hitting clutch shots against quality opponents is what the Bulls need most from him. Especially when he's being guarded by a smaller point guard such as Darren Collison when the Pacers go big against Rose.

Obviously, there are tougher tests ahead. The improving Milwaukee Bucks visit Friday, then the Bulls depart for that two-week road trip that includes stops in Miami, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee and Boston.

As of Thursday, there was a crowd at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, with Miami, Orlando, Indiana, Philadelphia and Atlanta all within 2 games of the Bulls.

This is no time to look ahead to the Heat. There are too many potholes to avoid during this shortened, condensed season.

• Follow Mike's Bulls reports via Twitter @McGrawDHBulls and check out his All Bull blog at dailyherald.com.

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