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Bulls ruin Pacers’ party with 89-77 statement win

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Updated: March 24, 2014 11:40PM

The Pacers had a chance to clinch their second consecutive Central Division title Monday night at the United Center.

The Bulls had a chance to make a statement that, despite a season of personnel angst, they don’t plan to be slouches in the playoffs.

Give the Bulls their statement — with an exclamation point — in an 89-77 victory.

‘‘We had a good resolve about us; we kept battling,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘When we hit a rough patch, we just kept going. When you play them, that’s how you have to play.’’

Before a delighted sellout crowd of 21,803, the Bulls put on a show, especially in the third quarter, when they broke out of a sluggish shooting night and flexed some muscle, too.

Taj Gibson, unhappy with the Bulls’ loss Friday at Indiana, bounced back with a big game, finishing with 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting and eight rebounds.

‘‘They really dominated us last game, especially on the glass, and they were laughing,’’ Gibson said. ‘‘It’s frustrating when you’re playing a team that’s your rival, and they’re slapping fives and laughing in your face. I didn’t like how I played last game. I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to have a better showing on defense, and the offense just came to me.’’

Down 34-33 at halftime, the Bulls opened a 47-37 lead with 14-3 run to start the third quarter. Mike Dunleavy made three jumpers to lead the charge. They would score 56 points in the second half against the NBA’s stingiest defense.

A defining moment came when Kirk Hinrich ran down and snatched the ball from Paul George, who seemed to let up, bracing for a foul. After George (21 points) raised his hands in disbelief at the no-call, Gibson drilled home a big dunk at the other end and celebrated wildly.

‘‘When you have great hustle plays, those types of things unite and inspire your team,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Instead of giving up an easy bucket, you get an easy bucket. Those things are huge.’’

The gasping Pacers called a much-needed timeout to escape the Bulls’ determined toughness.

Although it’s a ways off, it sure felt like a playoff meeting.

One thing’s for certain. Indiana’s Central Division clinching will have to wait. And even though the Pacers are sitting atop the Eastern Conference, they have gone 5-7 in their last 12 games and have lost three of four.

Meanwhile, despite losing Derrick Rose to injury and dealing Luol Deng, the Bulls have the most wins (28) in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel admitted playing the Bulls and the Heat, Indiana’s opponent Wednesday, is different than playing a tail-ender.

‘‘They count the same, but they certainly don’t feel the same,’’ Vogel said. ‘‘If you’re playing somebody with a poor record, it’s not going to feel the same as somebody you could see in the playoffs. The level of competition is better. It feels like the stakes are higher. I like playing games like this.’’

They can’t be nearly as fun, though, when you’re on the wrong end of the score.

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