The battle to control the postgame celebration at the United Center was fierce at the start of Monday's game.
The Indiana Pacers played the role of neighborhood rival perfectly.
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They revisited their physical playoff defense of last spring during the first half, without the flagrant fouls. By halftime, the Bulls top scorers, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, had shot a combined 2-for-16 from the field and the visiting Pacers held a 43-42 edge.
But the Bulls have made a challenge of sending messages to quality opponents lately. They already knocked off San Antonio and Philadelphia on the road in the past week.
The latest chapter in the no-celebration tour turned around in a big way as the Bulls outscored Indiana 33-13 in the third quarter and coasted to a 92-72 victory.
Deng ended up leading the Bulls (32-8) with 20 points. Rose had 13 points and 9 assists, while Joakim Noah grabbed 17 rebounds as the Bulls outboarded the Pacers 60-32.
"We don't take it lightly when a team beats us and celebrates on our court," Carlos Boozer said in the locker room. "We don't forget too easily, either. We talk about all those things before the game."
When Indiana (23-13) won the last meeting between the teams on Jan. 25, Rose vowed to remember the Pacers celebrating that victory. That one line grew into a significant subplot for the Pacers' return to Chicago.
But Deng turned the dialogue in a different direction by stating that the Bulls (32-8) simply don't want to lose to a team twice in a row, whether it's Indiana, Philadelphia or anyone else.
"We've got the character and the guys; we know those teams beat us last time," Deng said. "We don't want a team to keep beating us, no matter who it is. We feel we're good enough to beat anyone in this league. When a team keeps beating you, that's giving you a message.
"If they beat us again, players get comfortable and get confidence. That's the biggest thing in this league. Once you can beat someone and feel comfortable doing it, you get up for it."
Fans at the United Center were up for this game. With their favorite Pacers villain, Jeff Foster, out with an injury, the crowd targeted Tyler Hansbrough for excessive booing, then jeered loudly when Indiana center Roy Hibbert (2 points) left early with 2 fouls.
Still, the Pacers built a lead thanks to their defense. At halftime, Rose thought he had Indiana's plan figured out but was baffled by his own failures.
"I was getting to the hole; I just wasn't finishing the way I wanted to," he said. "I wasn't spinning the ball right off the glass. I wasn't getting enough arc on the ball when I was pulling up.
"It was just one of those nights, I guess. I wasn't worried about it. I shot worse than that before, so that's the way I think of it."
He was getting swarmed by defenders, so Rose began the third quarter with a few assists. Then he beat the blitz by pulling up on the break for a 3-pointer that put the Bulls up by 6.
The momentum never slowed as Rose canned 2 more 3-pointers and Deng knocked down 2 long ones in a row. By the end of the quarter, the Bulls lead was 75-56.
It looked like the starters would get to celebrate the win on the bench in the fourth quarter. But when Indiana closed within 13 points with 3:45 left, coach Tom Thibodeau sent Deng and Noah back on the floor.
He also suggested Rose do some stretching, just in case it got any closer.
"If it got any closer, he was going in," Thibodeau said of Rose. "He was in the bullpen warming up."