INDIANAPOLIS—Despite their underachieving ways—and now because of them—the Bulls are engaged in some serious competition.
The first is for a playoff spot, and their 113-107 victory Wednesday night over the Pacers in a rare triumph at Conseco Fieldhouse pulled them to within two games of the Nets for the final spot.
The other, equally intense battle is for playing time. And with Larry Hughes coming up with 29 points, six assists and three steals and Drew Gooden coming up large with 10 points and 15 rebounds, all bets are off.
Want proof? Kirk Hinrich played 56 second-half seconds against the Pacers, who have dropped 9 of 11 home games.
"I said there's competition," interim coach Jim Boylan said. "Bring your 'A' game or come sit next to me. I didn't like the way the first couple of [second-half] possessions went. I felt we needed to make a change. Everyone is accountable. There are no exceptions."
Travis Diener scored four of his career-high 22 points sandwiched around a Hinrich miss, drawing Hinrich's third foul in the process. In came Hughes. Out went Hinrich.
Hughes immediately heated up, scoring eight of his 10 third-quarter points to help the Bulls rally from their largest deficit at 74-63.
"I got on a roll. They put the ball in my hands and let me come off some screens," Hughes said. "I just got aggressive."
So did Andres Nocioni, one of six Bulls in double figures, who scored the first five fourth-quarter points to snap an 82-82 tie. Tyrus Thomas, whom the coaching staff has discussed replacing in the lineup with Gooden, then tipped home a Hughes miss to extend the run to 7-0.
The Bulls led 97-87 before the Pacers scored seven straight. That's when Hughes calmly drained a 19-foot jumper and Gooden rebounded a missed Luol Deng free throw to set up a Hughes three-pointer. Eight of Gooden's rebounds were offensive.
"That puts food on the table for me," Gooden said. "I will continue to do that. And I'll bring other things."
With Hinrich benched and Chris Duhon not playing again, Ben Gordon served as the primary ball-handler. He tied a season-high with six assists against three turnovers.
The Bulls, who had lost 16 of 18 here and received 67 points from their bench, have averaged 101.3 points in going 1-2 since Hughes and Gooden started playing.
"We're moving and sharing the ball," Hughes said. "We're putting five, six, seven guys in double figures. That gives you a chance to win. Although we don't have everything figured out defensively, we're aggressive and do play hard. That should work in our favor."
The Bulls did tie a season-high with 13 steals and limited the Pacers to 41 percent shooting. But some players still treat guarding against the three-point shot as if it's a disease, which should lead to more competition for playing time.
"It's not frustrating at all," Boylan said. "It's challenging trying to get everybody out there, see the combinations and try to feel what's working for us. But it actually has been a good thing to create competition at positions and give me lots of options."