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Bulls win seventh straight, but Rip Hamilton injured again

As Paul George Darren Collisswarm Derrick Rose Bulls point guard passes ball. Rose struggled first half shooting 1-for-9 but he

As Paul George and Darren Collison swarm to Derrick Rose, the Bulls point guard passes the ball. Rose struggled in the first half, shooting 1-for-9, but he picked up the pace in the decisive third quarter. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 10, 2012 10:33AM

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can’t see beyond the next game. But almost everybody else views his team in a much broader context: Are the Bulls good enough to beat the Heat in a seven-game playoff series?

While the Bulls’ 92-72 victory against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night was a typical rollicking affair at the United Center — Derrick Rose was the best player in the NBA in the decisive third quarter, Luol Deng (20 points), Joakim Noah (17 rebounds) and the supporting cast played their roles to the hilt and Brian Scalabrine brought the house down with a baseline jumper in the final seconds — the big-picture outlook might have taken a hit.

Though the Bulls (32-8) are on a roll with seven consecutive victories and have the best record in the NBA, one key element to a championship season is not working out — Richard Hamilton can’t stay healthy.

The 6-7 shooting guard, who missed 23 of the Bulls’ first 39 games, suffered a shoulder injury after banging into Pacers guard Paul George in the first minute of the game, left the court with 10:38 to go in the first quarter and did not return.

‘‘He’ll be examined [Tuesday]. We’re not sure [how he is],’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He tried to shake it off, and at first I thought it might be a stinger. But that wasn’t the case.’’

Hamilton has yet to play in more than five consecutive games without missing time because of an injury. Monday night’s game was his fifth consecutive start after missing 13 in a row with leg and hip injuries — and he had played 20 minutes or fewer in each of those.

Hamilton’s absence didn’t make a difference Monday night. Ronnie Brewer, replacing Hamilton, helped spark the third-quarter flurry that turned a 47-44 Pacers lead into a 75-56 Bulls rout.

Brewer hit a 21-footer to give the Bulls a 48-47 lead and scored inside off a feed from Rose for a 50-47 edge before Rose (13 points on 5-for-16 shooting, nine assists) and Deng (3-for-5 three-pointers, four assists) took matters into their own hands. Rose, who had scored two points on 1-for-9 shooting in the first half, hit three three-pointers, and Deng added two from behind the arc to complete a 30-9 surge that gave the Bulls a 72-54 lead with 1:59 left in the quarter. Brewer scored 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds.

‘‘Thibs tells us to be ready, you never know when your opportunity is going to come,’’ Brewer said. ‘‘When your name is called, you have to be ready. You owe it to your teammates, you owe it to this team, and I’m just glad I could do my part.’’

The Bulls further showed off their depth when Rose picked up his second foul with 1:38 left in the first quarter. With C.J. Watson out with a sprained ankle, John Lucas III came off the bench and scored nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in the first half.

That’s why Pacers coach Frank Vogel called the Bulls the best team in the NBA. By the end, Hamilton was long forgotten. Eventually, his absence figures to be felt.

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