The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers have developed a fiery rivalry that dates back to their matchup in the first round of last season's playoffs. Fueled by the confidence of coach Frank Vogel, the Pacers seem to always play the Bulls tough -- literally.
Bulls star Derrick Rose was irked with the way the Pacers celebrated after winning 95-90 on Jan. 25 in Chicago and vowed afterward that he would not forget the scene. He didn't talk about the fact that he received plenty of hard fouls by the Pacers last spring, when the Bulls pulled out a five-game series win over Indiana. Instead, he adamantly stated he couldn't wait for the next time both teams face off, which will be Monday night at the United Center.
Although the reigning NBA MVP will certainly downplay the game, Bulls center Joakim Noah fully understands his point guard's mentality heading into Monday.
"Derrick gets hype off people celebrating," Noah said. "When people talk about celebration, I just feel like you're not going to out-celebrate me. [Pacers center] Roy Hibbert cannot out-celebrate me."
So, how exactly did the Pacers celebrate after handing the Bulls their first home loss of the season? For starters, Indiana guards Darren Collison and Danny Granger both exchanged high-fives right in front of Rose late in the game. Then, the Pacers were overly loud in the post-game locker room, according to Bulls players.
Of course, Luol Deng, the Bulls' glue player, sat out that defeat and the team's most critical shot of the game was attempted by Brian Scalabrine.
The Pacers truly get up for tilts against their Central division rival Bulls. Since taking over in the middle of last season, Vogel, one of the youngest coaches in the NBA, has changed the Pacers' culture and has given the squad an identity -- "smash-mouth" basketball. There's bad blood flowing between these two teams and they know it.
For their part, the Bulls will look to put together their second consecutive statement win -- but coming out on top Monday will mean a lot more. And it could even trigger, perhaps, a dance move or two by Noah, who isn't a foreigner to celebrating following a win.
"If they want to see some celebration, when we win, I can show them some celebration," said Noah, who put up 11 points and 18 rebounds against the Sixers. "... I know how to celebrate."
Deng produces in crunch time: In similar fashion to Wednesday night's 96-89 win over the San Antonio Spurs, Deng stepped up down the stretch against the Sixers. The All-Star scored all of his eight points in the fourth quarter when he knocked down two three-pointers and a layup.
Overall, Deng had a season-low-tying two rebounds to go along with four assists in 43 minutes of action. He also missed eight of his 11 shots. Yet, he hit critical baskets and held his counterpart, Andre Iguodala, to 14 points on 6-for-15 shooting. The Sixers' forward -- who joined Deng at last month's All-Star Game, as the two men conversed a lot on the bench during the annual showcase -- was highly contested by Deng when he air balled two three-pointers late in the contest.
Deng wasn't able to build on Friday's 24-point effort the way he wanted to, but he came up huge for his team when it mattered and performed on the defensive end all night.
"He's so mentally tough," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told the assembled media. "And he was guarding everybody out there. ... Then offensively, he has a lot of poise. [He hit] a big three. He reads the game well, he doesn't force things, and he had a couple drives in which the calls could've gone either way. They didn't go his way, but that doesn't discourage him. He just keeps playing on."
The Bulls as a whole can sense that they are much more comfortable in crunch time this season compared to the past couple years.
"I think that the difference between us this year and last year, or the previous year, [is] we've just got guys [who] are mature now and know what it takes, especially in the fourth, to just do little things to win," Deng said.
Room for improvement: The Bulls were able to escape the City of Brotherly Love with a win on national TV Sunday, but they were definitely not satisfied with their all-around performance. The Sixers racked up 18 fast-break points -- three shy of their output in last month's rout at Wells Fargo Arena -- and outrebounded the Bulls 50-45. On the offensive glass, Philadelphia grabbed 18 to the Bulls' seven.
Thibodeau wasn't happy with his team's interior defense and, for the second straight game, displayed a lot of frustrating moments throughout the game. The Sixers' front line put up 61 points and 38 rebounds, while the Bulls' had 38 points and 31 rebounds.
Bulls forward Taj Gibson had just two points and missed 5-of-6 field-goals in 17 minutes of action. He has struggled in four games since the All-Star break, averaging five points on a paltry 37.5 percent shooting from the field. Although Gibson had a nice block Sunday, he missed two free throws late in the game that gave the Sixers a chance to tie the game.
"We didn't protect the basket as well as we should have," Thibodeau said. "But we hung on and I thought we showed a lot of toughness."