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Bulls win, but problems persist

Bulls center Jaokim Noah grabs loose ball front Indianforward Danny Granger 2nd quarter an NBA playoff game featuring Chicago Bulls

Bulls center Jaokim Noah grabs a loose ball in front of Indiana forward Danny Granger in the 2nd quarter in an NBA playoff game featuring the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers in game two; round one April 18, 2011 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 21, 2012 9:58PM

The Bulls are doing a dead-on impression of a sixth seed.

They might be the ­championship contender a lot of us think they are, but they sure don’t look like it.

It’s either that or the Pacers have morphed into Red Auerbach’s ­Celtics without telling anybody.

The talk after Game 1 was that the Bulls had withstood the best the Indiana Pacers had to offer, and that for all intents and purposes, the series was over. They had eked out a victory over a pesky team that had had its one shining moment and was done.

Maybe this series is over, the Bulls are just playing with us and this is all a bizarre dream.

But the talk now should be about how a No. 1 seed can look so unremarkable for most of two playoff games. The Bulls beat Indiana 96-90 Monday night, and if the only thing that matters is a victory, then you should be feeling very good about your Bulls.

But bear in mind that the Pacers were without point guard Darren Collison for the second half. Bear in mind that the Pacers had Mike Dunleavy, Brandon Rush and Josh McRoberts on the floor late in ­the game.

Is it OK to start worrying in ­earnest now?

That’s what I thought.

What has become clear after two games is that nothing is a given in this first-round series. The Pacers might be an eighth seed, but they don’t know it. The truth is that if it weren’t for Derrick Rose, the Bulls would be … the Pacers. That’s right. They don’t look anything like the team that won a league-high 62 games. They look more like the team that won 37. Hard to believe, but true.

“We have to make corrections,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The good teams are able to make those corrections after they win. Hopefully, we can be one of those teams.’’

Pacers’ best asset: Hustle

If this is the place where we’re supposed to be impressed by the gutsy Pacers, forget it. They’re not a great team. They hustle. They play hard. But they’re not in the same league as the Bulls. When Jeff Foster, a journeyman from Texas State, is outhustling you, you’re in trouble.

But when T.J. Ford hit a shot from about three-quarters of the court to tie the game at 67 at the end of the third quarter, the Pacers sure looked like they belonged.

The Bulls had some of the same problems in Game 2 as they did in Game 1.

That defense the Bulls had prided themselves on struggled to keep up with Indiana’s shooters. On offense, if the Bulls weren’t throwing the ball away, they were traveling with it. They had 21 turnovers.

They can’t have Carlos Boozer on the court late in games because of his defensive deficiencies. That’s just one more reason to worry, Bulls fans. Or maybe not. Maybe Kurt Thomas is the right answer, anyway.

The Bulls can’t play like this and win an early series, let alone an Eastern Conference championship. They looked tight, tentative, out of sorts — understandable for Game 1, worrisome for the second game of what was supposed to be a cakewalk. They look like a team that needs to be reminded often that it’s good.

The best thing they had going for them Monday was that Collison had to leave the game with a sprained ankle late in the second quarter. And still it was a huge struggle.

The Bulls have to rely on Rose, who scored 36, but everybody else has to participate.

The Bulls aren’t LeBron-Wade-Bosh. They can’t stand around and wait for somebody to pick up the slack. They can’t win with just their MVP candidate.

Luol Deng shot 3-of-13 from the floor, and Joakim Noah went 2-for-10. That’s not going to work.

Big bucket by Bogans

Keith Bogans hit a wide-open three-pointer from the corner to give the Bulls a 55-50 lead early in the third quarter, and it’s that kind of contribution that happen on ­championship runs. Until that point, Bogans was 0-for-4 from the floor, and the United Center crowd had gotten on him. He’s an easy target: the two-guard who can’t shoot.

Now the Bulls head to Indianapolis for two road games, and who thought that was going to be anything more than, well, two road games in ­Indianapolis?

Every time the Bulls made a little run, the Pacers came back. Great teams make a run and put their foot on the opponents’ throat. That’s the way it’s always been in the NBA, a man’s league. You impose your will on the other team. You make them feel worthless and weak.

All this Bulls team has done in two playoff games is help Indiana feel good about itself. Who knew the Bulls were in the business of building self-esteem in their opponents?

You win 62 games in the regular season, you should have aspirations of winning the whole thing. You win 62 games, you pound the Pacers into mashed potatoes and send them back to Indiana. That’s how the big boys do it.

This isn’t panic. It’s bewilderment. You build up all that equity with a spectacular regular season, and you show up for the playoffs with this? Explain.

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