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Bulls winners, even in defeat
When a team has endured a 0-9 opening and starters going down to an irregular heartbeat and a torn wrist ligament, a gimpy left ankle is nothing.
The Bulls concluded their 39th regular season in franchise history Wednesday night at Conseco Fieldhouse with an 85-83 loss to Indiana, their 14th straight loss on the Pacers' court after Jannero Pargo's shot at the buzzer rimmed out.
But on a night the Bulls lost Tyson Chandler to the ankle injury, played their starters fewer minutes than usual and, having secured home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, had little to play for, they impressed their strictest judge.
"The effort was great," coach Scott Skiles said.
Indiana had dual emotional boosts, needing a victory to maintain its sixth seed, which meant a first-round series against Boston as opposed to Detroit.
And the sellout crowd of 18,345 roared anytime Reggie Miller touched the ball, honoring his final regular-season game after an 18-year Hall of Fame career.
Still, the Bulls made this a one-possession game all the way to the final shot as their top-ranked bench outscored Indiana's 44-6.
Chandler is an important part of that bench and he said he's confident he will play in Sunday's playoff opener at the United Center against Washington. But he clearly was limping as he exited the Bulls' locker room in street clothes.
Then again, who needs Chandler when you have Jared Reiner? Who needs Kirk Hinrich when you have Pargo?
Let's hope sarcasm is as easy to spot as the Bulls' resiliency. Check out the lineup that produced an 11-2 fourth-quarter run that gave the Bulls a 77-76 lead with 2 minutes 13 seconds remainingPargo, Reiner, Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski and Lawrence Funderburke.
Pargo led the Bulls with 17 points. Funderburke added nine in 20 minutes.
Reiner also drained the jumper with 1.8 seconds left that gave the Bulls one final chance when Pargo came up with an errant Pacers inbounds pass and fired for overtime.
"The way we played was refreshing," Pargo said. "Our bench has been doing that all year."
Stephen Jackson's two free throws with 3.8 seconds to play came after Dale Davis muscled out Reiner for an offensive rebound of a Miller miss. The Bulls had almost stymied that possession, but Pargo dived for a loose ball that eventually went out of bounds off him even though it would have been the Bulls' ball.
But that's quibbling for a team that finished 20-21 on the road and, at 47-35, 24 games better than last season, the second biggest improvement in franchise history after the 25-game boost in the 72-win season of 1995-96.
The Bulls also beat out Houston to lead the league in defensive field-goal percentage, a testament to this team's improved defense and conditioning.
"Whenever we have needed our bench guys, they have played great," Hinrich said. "We have an edge on a lot of teams because we're so deep."
The Bulls led by as many as 14 in the first half and settled for a 48-38 halftime edge thanks to 54 percent shooting.
Indiana erased that deficit in the first 5:02 of the third quarter, even with Miller getting a technical foul from veteran official Joey Crawford as a parting gift. A 15-2 Pacers run put them up.
Indiana also opened the fourth with an 11-0 burst, with Miller and Jermaine O'Neal combining to score nine points. Miller finished with 12 points. O'Neal led Indiana with 21.
If there's a city that knows about meaningless late-season games, it's Chicago.
The Bulls have played countless such games over the last six seasons, including their regular-season finale at Conseco last April 14, which might have marked the most impressive night of the Marcus Fizer years.
What a difference a year makes. The Bulls played yet another meaningless regular-season game Wednesday, but it was rendered so because of success, not losing.
After last season's finale, standing in almost the exact spot he stood on Wednesday night, Skiles was asked if he thought the Bulls would be better in the future.
"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in [general manager John Paxson] and in myself," Skiles said. "So
I'd say I'm confident we'll be better next season."
That part of the mission is accomplished, albeit with more workin the form of playoff gamesremaining.