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Pacers were the perfect first-round opponent for Bulls

If Bulls wNBA title they can thank Pacers for pushing them first round. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media

If the Bulls win the NBA title, they can thank the Pacers for pushing them in the first round. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media

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If the Bulls end up winning the NBA title this season, they’re going to thank the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers were a perfect first-round foil for a young team with an MVP-caliber point guard that wants to win it all now — a beatable-but-capable opponent that exposed some weaknesses, got their blood flowing and most of all taught them a valuable lesson that every championship team needs to learn: when you’re in a fight, you better fight back.

The Bulls did that in Game 5 at the United Center on Tuesday night and not coincidentally, finally looked like the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference — taking a 14-2 lead in the first three minutes and pulling away when things got tight in the third quarter to win 116-89.

They couldn’t have asked for a much better set-up for the next round. The Bulls never were threatened in the series, but were challenged from the opening tip of Game 1 to the 4:00 mark of Game 5. The last thing this team needed was a cakewalk against a team that played like a No. 8 seed. This series was like playing a 4 or 5 seed that didn’t know how to win.

First-time winners in the NBA rarely coast through the first round. The Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks in seven games in 2008. The Heat struggled against the Bulls in 2006, splitting the first four games before winning 4-2. Young teams have to learn quickly. The Bulls looked like they passed a test in Game 5 against the Pacers.

The Celtics and the Heat might still be the favorites to come out of the East. But the Bulls took a step in the right direction in this series. They committed seven turnovers in the first quarter of Game 4 in Indianapolis, eventually fell behind by 16 points at halftime and still nearly pulled out the victory with a mad-dash rally at the end.

This time they took care of business early. They didn’t commit a turnover in the first seven minutes of the game and had three in the first quarter, shooting 12-of-19 from the field (63 percent). It was if they said enough was enough.

And the Pacers did the Bulls an additional favor by mucking up the series with physical play that forced the Bulls to respond, which they did without going over the line — the line that Josh McRoberts crossed when he swung a forearm at Joakim Noah on a rebound late in the third quarter, earning an ejection.

‘‘As the playoffs go on, it gets more and more like that, which is fine — we’ve got a tough team,’’ Bulls guard Kyle Korver said. ‘‘We want to be smart about how we do it. We don’t want to get technical fouls obviously. We don’t want to get anyone suspended or lose money. But at the same time, you have to stand up to them. You get a hard foul, you have to give one back. That’s just the way it is.’’

That was perhaps the most valuable lesson learned by the Bulls in this series. Bigger challenges await. Derrick Rose’s ankle isn’t 100 percent. And the Bulls still have a Carlos Boozer problem to deal with. But after beating the Pacers, they’re ready to take the next step.



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