Amid all the hoopla, Luol Deng and his Chicago Bulls teammates quietly understood the significance of Monday night's game against the Indiana Pacers and how important it was to send a booming message to their Central division rivals. They were coming off a statement victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night but badly wanted to avenge one more loss when they returned home from a brief, three-game road trip.
The Pacers played the Bulls extremely tough in the first round of last season's playoffs and pulled off a stunning 95-90 win on Jan. 25 at the United Center. Deng has seen that the Pacers' confidence seems to always run high when the two teams face off -- and he knows how dangerous it can be if Indiana believes it has the Bulls' number.
The veteran small forward is also cognizant of the possibility that the Bulls and Pacers could meet again during the postseason. That's why, from Deng to Derrick Rose, the reigning NBA MVP, the Bulls were a team on a mission Monday night in front of the United Center crowd, routing the Pacers 92-72 and giving up just 29 second-half points.
"[The win] was big," Deng told reporters after the contest. "They beat us here. You don't want to lose to a team twice in a row at home, especially a team that you could be facing in the playoffs. We played them last year. Even though we won 4-1 [in the first round], they played us close every game and they felt like they could've won every game. So it was really a big game for us to come out and make sure that we get the win back, because they took one from us here."
Deng and Rose, the Bulls' two All-Stars, didn't have the most efficient outings, combining for 33 points on 10-for-29 shooting. But they poured in 19 points in the game-changing third quarter, when Chicago outscored Indiana 33-13 and Rose and Deng hit five of the team's nine three-pointers to open up an insurmountable 19-point lead heading into the fourth. The Bulls as a whole played with a lot of energy all night, as evidenced by their 60-32 edge on the glass and the fact that they held the Pacers to a paltry 34.2 percent shooting from the field. In what seemed like a flash, they turned a one-point halftime deficit into a 20-point drubbing and turned their intensity level up several notches.
"They won all the loose balls. Obviously, kicked our butts on the glass. And clearly they took control of game in the third quarter by getting red hot from the three-point line," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "We struggled to execute offensively all night, and when we did, we had a lot of guys have bad shooting nights. And credit to the Bulls for getting the W."
Rose made no secret after that loss in late January that he would not forget the way the Pacers celebrated on the Bulls' home court. The rest of his teammates followed suit and it showed, as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's group clicked defensively and made countless high-energy plays on both ends of the floor, the ones the reigning Coach of the Year loves.
"A lot of guys were making second and third efforts ... blocked shots, not letting the ball go out of bounds, saving it to lead to easy fast-break points," Bulls guard Ronnie Brewer said. "That's what we need to be successful."
To build on the rivalry that has developed between both teams, Bulls players admitted they exchanged words with the Pacers on the court afterward and in the post-game tunnel. In Rose's mind, getting involved in extracurricular conversations is simply another aspect of the game, albeit mental, that his team must thrive in moving forward.
"We just go out there and we're trying to win the game," he told the assembled media. "If that's an exchange of words or whatever it is, it's basketball. You're going to hear that. We've just got to get used to it."
Although Thibodeau has instilled a mantra in his players that they could skip steps if they don't stay focused on a day-to-day basis and remain determined to accomplish the next task at hand, which is now to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks on the road Wednesday night, it's clear that the bunch in the Chicago locker room is starting to look at the big picture.
"We played with a lot of passion tonight," center Joakim Noah told reporters. "We know what's at stake, and to be playing good basketball right now is rewarding."
The Bulls refused to give the Pacers any type of confidence -- by any means necessary. Rose and his teammates believed they had given the Pacers enough of that last time in Chicago and that they could ill afford to do the same on Monday, with the possible long-term effects in mind.
"We want to win a championship," Rose said. "We just try to go out there and compete every single night like a championship team."