Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
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. They were a beatable but capable opponent that exposed some weaknesses, got the Bulls’ 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 on Tuesday and, not coincidentally, finally looked like the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They opened a 14-2 lead in the first three minutes and pulled away when things got tight in the third quarter to win 116-89.
They couldn’t have asked for a much better setup for the next round. The Bulls never were threatened in the series but were challenged from the opening tip of
Game 1 to the four-minute mark of Game 5. The last thing this team needed was a cakewalk against a team that played like a No. 8 seed.
First-time winners in the NBA rarely coast through the first round. The Boston Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks in seven games in 2008. The Miami 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 Heat still might be the favorites to come out of the East. But the Bulls took a step in the right direction against the Pacers. 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 rally at the end.
In Game 5, they took care of business early. They didn’t commit a turnover in the first seven minutes and had three in the first quarter, shooting 12-for-19 from the field (63 percent). It was as 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. 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 the 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.