CHICAGO (AP) — Bulls center Joakim Noah believes the Eastern Conference is more than a two-team race.
His message: Don't dismiss Chicago just yet.
Following an 89-77 victory over first-place Indiana on Monday night, Noah said the Bulls think they are capable of competing with anyone in the East, be it the Pacers or defending champion Miami Heat.
"We feel like we can go at anybody, we can beat anybody, when we're hungry. Stay humble and keep grinding," Noah said. "I said right after the game, 'I'm excited about having an opportunity to play these guys again.'"
The season series with the Pacers is over — the teams split four games and the home team won each one — so another meeting would have to come in the playoffs.
"It was real physical; my body is sore right now," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "That's the kind of games we play against our rivals, playoff basketball. That's going to happen."
Gibson, bouncing back from a subpar performance and postgame rant when the teams played last Friday in Indiana, scored 23 points to lead five Bulls in double figures.
Kirk Hinrich had 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting, Mike Dunleavy scored 13, Jimmy Butler 12 and Noah added 10 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Gibson, who was 9 for 15 from the field, also had eight rebounds in 32 minutes off the bench.
The Bulls (40-31) pulled within two percentage points of Toronto (39-30) for third place in the Eastern Conference, a rise that wasn't considered realistic when star guard Derrick Rose was injured and Luol Deng was traded.
The win also prevented Indiana from clinching the Central Division title on Chicago's home court. The Pacers are looking to win consecutive division crowns for the second time since joining the NBA (1998-99 and 1999-2000).