The Bulls agree with the naysayers: They haven’t played their best basketball yet. But in putting away the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, they mustered their best game of the playoffs to date.
Deliver the knockout punch with a flourish? That’s a good thing.
‘‘This is the first game of the series where we played on both ends,’’ guard Keith Bogans said. ‘‘That’s the way we wanted to play the whole series. To end it that way, we can carry it on to the next series.’’
Having done what they needed to do, they’ll move along.
The welts and bruises from the physical series against the Pacers will heal. They’ll be replaced by a new set of issues when Round 2 begins Monday against the Atlanta Hawks or Orlando Magic.
For all the angst and worry, the Bulls won the series against the Pacers 4-1. Keeping that ratio, here are four encouraging things we learned about the Bulls from their second playoff-series victory since Michael Jordan was leading the championship charge, plus one troublesome sign.
THE ENCOURAGING STUFF
1. THE BULLS ARE RESILIENT:
Best regular-season record or not, the Bulls are new to being a top seed. But they handled a tough set of circumstances.
The Pacers are a talented and physical young team that hit the Bulls with their best shots. Mix in Carlos Boozer’s struggles and Derrick Rose’s sprained ankle, and there could have been trouble.
Many higher seeds are having problems in the playoffs. Give the Bulls credit for taking care of business.
‘‘That’s the strength of this team: We’re resilient,’’ center Joakim Noah said. ‘‘All year long we’ve dealt with adversity. Whatever’s thrown at us, we understand the big picture. We have good character on this team.’’
2. ROSE CAN BE THE PLAYOFF MVP, TOO:
What Rose did in the regular season wasn’t fool’s gold, to use one of coach Tom Thibodeau’s phrases. Against the Pacers, he put the team on his back for long stretches. And he has the fire to keep doing it now that he has won a playoff series for the first time.
‘‘Last year, it was, ‘How are we going to win this game?’ ’’ Rose said. ‘‘We really didn’t have a chance. This year, we have a legit chance to win every game. If we play hard on the defensive end, it should be easy for us.’’
Not easy, as in winning by 40 points. But easy, as in being competitive until the end, then letting Rose close.
3. THE BENCH CAN DELIVER:
Despite having its minutes shortened earlier in the
series, the bench stayed ready. With Rose in foul trouble and Boozer down with a bruised toe and foul trouble in Game 5, the bench came through with a series-high 36 points.
‘‘It feels good; I had a great time playng,’’ said forward Taj Gibson, who had 10 points and seven rebounds. ‘‘The whole series, we stuck with it. Guys kept their humble mentality. Then we just let it all hang out and went after that [clinching] win.’’
4. THE SECOND OPTION IS MULTIPLE:
Critics who say the Bulls don’t have a second option have a point, especially when Boozer is in the tank. Rose has no Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan, no Elgin Baylor to his Jerry West.
There’s no other guy who consistently creates on his own. But when they’re moving the ball around — they had 27 assists on 40 baskets in Game 5, compared with only 12 on 31 baskets in Game 4 — the Bulls have plenty of guys who can score.
‘‘Any time we have high assists, guys really shoot the ball well,’’ forward Luol Deng said, pointing to the Bulls’ second-half shooting surge in Game 5. ‘‘It became contagious. We moved the ball really well, and guys were making shots.’’
THE TROUBLESOME SIGN
1. WHAT ABOUT BOOZER?
Boozer finished the series the way he began it — on the bench. A toe injury contributed, but that should heal before the Bulls resume their playoff run. The issue is how to get Boozer productive again.
‘‘We have to figure out a way to keep him out of foul trouble,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘It’s hard to get into a rhythm when you are picking up quick fouls.’’
As appealing as the rants about benching Boozer might seem to the vigilantes on the Bulls’ bandwagon, that’s not an option. They should be placed in the same file with the ‘‘bench Bogans’’ complaints: under misinformed and misguided.
Boozer needs to play better. And he probably will now that he’s away from the rambunctious young bigs of the Pacers. This was a bad matchup for Boozer.
What Boozer, who’s not a great defender on his best day, needs to do is pore over all the little help-defense tactics Thibodeau has designed to overcome his limitations and hope Noah knows them, too. On offense, Boozer needs to pick the right spots and be fluid with that high-arcing jumper, which has a lot of moving parts. Making a couple of jumpers will give him room to go to the basket and will help him to relax, which also is part of the problem.
He’s a tough guy, but the body language says he’s feeling the heat that comes with a $75 million contract. The solution is to find a way to maximize what he does best. Benching him is not a solution. It’s an easy rant that only would contribute to an early exit.