Bulls fail to keep pace in Indiana


Apr 24

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It may have best the best play the Bulls ran all game in Saturday’s 89-84 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Though, perhaps, it also crystallized the Bulls’ biggest issue as they try to make their way through these NBA playoffs.

The play drawn up by coach Tom Thibodeau with 17.9 seconds left and the Bulls on the verge of getting within one point after trailing by 13 with just over two minutes remaining was a beauty for Joakim Noah.

Noah, who finished his most productive game since his return from thumb surgery in February with 21 points and 14 rebounds, scored and was fouled on an inbounds pass as he slipped a screen while the Pacers shaded toward Kyle Korver. It was a terrific call and anticipation by Thibodeau.

But it also dramatized the Bulls’ struggle as they try to close out the Pacers in Game 5 Tuesday with a three games to one lead.

The Bulls needed a score desperately and went to Joakim Noah.

Yes, Joakim Noah, go to guy.

Not that a change of pace and outwitting the opponent isn’t tried by everyone on occasion. But the use of Noah as an offensive option at that point in the game underscores the dark shadow of doubt hovering over this Bulls season and now playoff run.

Who is going to step forward when Derrick Rose is thwarted, as he was once again by aggressive Pacers’ trapping defense and a sprained ankle late in the first quarter. Rose shot three of 16 after returning and played more than 43 minutes. He said he was fine and X-rays were negative, though Rose walked with a slight limp after the game and leaving the court.

“I’m good,” said Rose, who finished with 15 points, 10 assists and four steals, but just one of nine on threes and six of 22 shooting (he is 10 for 40 the last two games). “That’s basketball. You’re going to have injuries. If anything, I’ll be able to rest for a couple of days. I just wanted to keep moving. When you twist your ankle as a guard, the best thing to do is tie up your shoes tight and just keep playing. I really can’t explain (the injury). I took off wrong and all my weight pushed over on the ankle and ended up twisting it. Of course when you twist your ankle it’s going to slow you down a little bit.”

And perhaps it did, especially late in the game when the Pacers were once again like in Game 1 in full collapse mode. The Bulls trailed 82-66 with four minutes left and the game seemed over. But the Pacers put on their dunce basketball caps, guards running away from the ball to leave big men to dribble up court, shooters taking quick shots with half the shot clock left, players firing hot cakes passes from three feet away and the Bulls recovering.

So it’s 84-77 Pacers with 1:17 left when Darren Collison tried to slip an inside screen roll bounce pass to a moving Roy Hibbert. Good luck at any time with that. Rose picked it off and seemed headed for a certain five-point deficit. The fellow speedy Collison was running alongside and bumping Rose, but we’ve seen Rose flick such nuisances off like iron filings. But Collsion stayed there and  as Rose switched hands on the way up Collison got the ball and the Pacers recovered.

Could Rose have dunked it left handed on the run if he hadn’t sprained the ankle?

“If anything, I have to go up stronger and get fouled,” said Rose. “I could’ve laid it in with my left hand, but I thought he was going to foul me. So I tried my right and he hit the ball.”

Still, when Rose turned the ankle and went to the locker, albeit briefly and refusing to either sit down or get X-rays then, the Bulls were trailing 20-13. It wasn’t a good game start or finish in the end.

Yet, the Bulls did have chances to win after that block.

The Pacers recovered the ball and Danny Granger, who led them with 24 points and 10 rebounds, fired off a shot that missed with about 12 seconds on the shot clock.

Taj Gibson, in for Noah at that point, found Boozer for a score with a nice shovel pass. McRoberts was playing for Tyler Hansbrough, who was off again shooting three of 12 amidst concerns that the blow to his head in Game 1 still is affecting him. That brought the Bulls within 84-79 with 46.5 seconds left. And that was the kind of ball movement that was again missing early and got the Bulls into that double digit hole, and as much as 18 down, in the third quarter.

“I thought we moved the ball a lot better in the second half,” said Luol Deng, who had 16 points and three rebounds. “We have to try to eliminate those slow starts. The second half we were moving the ball, so we got better looks. We’ve got to move the ball early.”

The Pacers had blown a 10-point lead in the last 3:30 of Game 1, and here they were going again. They’d led every game in the series in the fourth quarter. And it’s not a huge coincidence against a 37-45 team because it really wasn’t that easy during the season. The Bulls trailed by 14 at halftime when the teams played for the first time under interim coach Frank Vogel in March. In two of the previous three regular season games, the Bulls led by just seven and five into the fourth quarter before pulling away.

McRoberts fired a high inside, 98 mile per hour fast ball at Collison, who deflected it to Rose, who this time was alone and scored on an easy two handed dunk. But no big, TV slam. No sense risking anything. It was 84-81 Pacers with 38.9 seconds left, the one possession game as they like to say on TV.

“Maybe there were a few flashbacks,” said Granger.

Mike Dunleavy then beat Korver on a back door cut and was fouled, making one of two for an 85-81 Indiana lead with 17.9 seconds left.

Maybe it’s not beautiful, efficient basketball, and neither team has been all that happy, the Pacers feeling they should be leading and the Bulls believing they should be more in control and playing more sharply.

But they all have been terrific, exciting games, hard played and worthy of a good playoff series.

What it suggests more than the Bulls not living up to their billing as the No. 1 seeded team is this egalitarian NBA we’ve seen evolve this season with Boston and the Lakers coming back to the pack, the Heat not taking off as expected and perhaps eight teams believing they have legitimate chances to be in the NBA Finals. It’s less the records than the talent, which has been equalized as much this season as it has in a decade.

So then came Noah’s play, and it was a beauty. But it also symbolized the Bulls’ basic flaw, the lack of that reliable second scorer, the traditional second high level offensive option that’s generally been vital for any serious playoff success.

“We’re not getting good looks,” said Korver. “We have to do a better job of giving Derrick an outlet. Him making the pass, and then making the read from there. When they got two guys on the ball, it should be easy offense. We should have guys wide open. And when we’re in those situations, we got to make the right play. And we’re just not doing it right now.”

The Bulls weren’t sharp and talked after the game about starting faster, making crisper passes, moving themselves and the ball, though the Pacers’ force has had something to do with that. The Bulls didn’t see a lot of that kind of grueling effort in the regular season, and it has set them back some.

“It’s a physical game, for sure,” said Korver. “I think it’s taking us out of what we want to do. We’re not playing smart in the first halves for whatever reason. Everything goes up in the second half. We’re settling for tough shots. We’ve go to give them credit.”

The locker room wasn’t particularly quiet. It didn’t appear like the Bulls players were particularly upset or concerned, and why should they be at this point? Plus—and I’m hardly saying the Bulls make the Finals—but Finals teams rarely sweep first round series. In the last 10 years with 20 teams in the Finals, just five have had first round sweeps, 20 percent.

“They came out with a lot of intensity,” said Deng. “I thought they rebounded the ball great. They fought us. Early in the game, they had more fight than us. They did not want to get swept. They came out with energy and took the lead. We made a great comeback, but it was not enough.

“Maybe next time in this situation we will learn from it,” said Deng. “Indiana played great and won. It’s not the end of the world. We go back home and play the next game. Every playoff series I’ve been in is like this. This is good for us. Not that I want to lose or anything. We’ve got to look at it as being able to fix the negatives. We go back home; we’re still up 3-1. We’ll go back home and try to close it.”

Obviously, a lot will depend on Rose and his ankle. He did roll it pretty good on that powerful drive late in the first quarter. And although you can play through those things at first, sometimes they’ll swell. Though Rose has two days off, and he is mentally strong and  a quick healer with a high pain threshold.

It will be the team’s story for the next two days.

And it’s not like the Bulls can acquire an All Star player before then.

I thought one of the reasons the Bulls struggled to open the game and to open the second half was the way Thibodeau is trying to find that second option to take the pressure off Rose. And I agree. He has to find someone to make a playoff run.

Obviously, it was supposed to be Carlos Boozer after free agency. But though he had 15 points and 13 rebounds Saturday, he’s had an in and out season with injuries and sprained ankles, and never has quite regained his lift.

Plus, teams like the Pacers are flopping and drawing fouls on him and he’s got to adjust and stop going into the chest of the defender.

But like in Game 3, Thibodeau put in some plays for Boozer to open the game, though Boozer once again got into foul trouble with a pair, though at least after 10 minutes this time. It seems in trying to get Boozer going, and then Deng to open the second half, the Bulls have gotten a bit more stagnant on offense. That smooth flow and movement hasn’t been there, though the Pacers have had something to do with that.

The Bulls don’t truly have someone to create other than Rose and, really, few great athletes. So they relied on that ball movement, player movement, lots of cutting and slashing to ignite the offense. But the Pacers after seven quarters finally began to trap Rose to take the ball out of his hands, and the Bulls truly have yet to find a response.

The seeming anxiety and urgency the Bulls played with in running up 62 wins doesn’t seem to be there quite as much.

I doubt Thibideau would make any lineups changes, and you’d hardly do so leading the series 3-1. But perhaps a bit of Korver in the first quarter might open the floor more. Obviously now more depends on Rose’s maneuverability. Though I’d also like to see more isolations at times for Rose early to give him a chance to attack the basket and kick out if needed.

Rose said he should have attacked more to open the game, but by running so much pick and roll the Pacers have used the screener’s man to trap Rose. They varied that, occasionally going with a straight blitz instead of an all out trap. But the Bulls also didn’t do a good job again of taking advantage as once you make the pass to the pressure release man, he should have cutters on both sides with someone for an easy layup. But the Bulls have let the Pacers jam that man and prevent the free flow of the ball.

Although Pacers coach Frank Vogel has done a good job getting the team playing at a frenzied level, he did the Bulls a huge favor basically failing to pressure Rose much for two games and not using Dahntay Jones, the Pacers’ best individual defender, until Game 3.

Jones made a key denial on Rose in the crucial last sequence with the Bulls inbounding with 14.1 seconds left trailing 87-84.

Shoot a three?

They would, though there was plenty of time to go for a two and foul as the Pacers had just missed five straight free throws midway through the third quarter.

Deng was inbounding, and I thought he could have gotten the ball to Rose. But Granger had his long arms extended and Jones was playing Rose hard. So Deng inbounded to Noah, who got stuck. He should have called time out as the Bulls had one left, but he didn’t amidst the din.

“We lost the game way before that,” Rose said. “And I think everybody knows that.”

It was an unusually large contingent of Bulls fans in nearby Indianapolis with virtually no Pacers home court crowd edge. Which is another reason the notion the Pacers were getting away with uncalled fouls seems specious. It’s generally been agreed, other than by the NBA, home crowds influence the referees. But the Pacers didn’t have that noise edge. Some said the Pacers had to come out to take the home crowd out of the game.

“The crowd was pretty rowdy,” said the Pacers’ Jeff Foster. “I’d never seen anything like that here.”

Granger said he went so far in huddles to tell his teammates to shut the crowd up given the large makeup of Bulls fans. You don’t hear that one much.

Noah couldn’t get the ball back to Rose for a handoff with Jones shadowing Rose. Then Granger came over the ball screen from Noah and Noah couldn’t get the ball to Deng. Deng then went back door toward the paint on Granger. But now six seconds were left with Deng dribbling across the lane. Korver had popped open on top, but Noah missed him. Deng got blocked off by Foster going to the basket and passed to—of all guys—Boozer in the corner, who shot a three, his first such attempt in three years, and missed short. He hadn’t made one since playing for Cleveland. Game over.

“We tried to run a play for D (Rose), get the ball in his hand,” said Boozer. “We tried to get it to Lu, Kyle. I happened to get the ball in the corner. I tried to give it a chance. It came up a little short.”

Just like the Bulls spirited and very impressive rally.

“I caught the ball at the elbow,” related Noah. “We were supposed to set a back screen for Lu and try to get a handoff for Derrick. Dahntay Jones played it well and denied it. I didn’t feel comfortable with the dribble handoff. My second option was Lu for a three. That was denied as well. Try to throw it to Lu and go pick-and-roll with him. Try to open something up. We got the shot in the corner for Carlos, obviously trying to get the ball to Derrick. Mental mistake. In that position, got to call timeout. We didn’t do that. You live and you learn.Tough loss. We didn’t play well in the first half again. We definitely have to do a better job with that. We’re a team that definitely deals with adversity well. We have high character and want to win. We’re excited because the playoffs have to go through Chitown.”

For however long the Bulls are in it, anyway.

Rose did hit a three early, his only one of the game as he’s now five of 29 in the series. As the games have gone on, especially at home, Paul George has gotten more bothersome on Rose with his long arms and with the big man trapping it’s made it difficult for Rose to maneuver.  But Boozer’s had all sorts of trouble early again, from a double dribble call early to a technical foul for taunting late. Though Roy Hibbert said he couldn’t hear what Boozer was saying with all the noise. It was ill timed as it came after a Boozer basket when the Bulls pulled within 57-48 midway through the third.

The Pacers came out determined to compete better on the backboards after Noah has taunted them to reporters at practice Friday that the Pacers were having to play thuggishly because the Bulls were “kicking their (butts) on the boards.”

The Pacers, as expected, went back to Hibbert early and he produced after complaining after Game 3 about not enough activity. He’s awfully awkward and still was outplayed by the more active and improving Noah, though Hibbert had 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.

Boozer, predictably, picked up a second foul on an offensive late in the first as he’s been watched carefully about having his arm extended on drives.

“I wish they let us continue to play more physically, except there is a quick whistle on us,” said Boozer. “But you can’t cry about the refs. You can’t sit here and say the refs did this and not that. They’ve got a tough job. We’ve got to be men out there, just get ready for the next one.”

It all is in the eye of the beholder. The Pacers have been called for more fouls in the series than the Bulls and Granger said the calls were bad in Chicago and it’s just been more fair the last two games as the Pacers were given a chance to compete. After Rose shot 21 free throws in the last regular season game and 21 in Game 1, the Pacers were furious with the NBA.

Back to the first quarter, Rose then came down on his ankle on a drive with 1:14 left in the first and the Bulls ahead 20-15. He immediately signaled to the bench to come out, and though he went back to the locker room, he walked it off, as the old timers liked to say, and returned to the game 90 seconds into the second quarter.

“Derrick doesn’t leave the game unless he’s hurt,” said Thibodeau. “For him to leave, I’m sure he tweaked it pretty good. He’s done it before. He’ll play through it. He said he was fine.”

The Bulls bench again had little impact, outscored 30-17 by the Pacers’. But Thibodeau, like most coaches, has gone to a tighter rotation for the playoffs under the conventional wisdom that your starters are the better players so play them longer. Though that is somewhat problematic with the Bulls with Keith Bogans a starter.

The reserves during the regular season had played more as a unit, usually with Deng, and formed a tough defensive bond. But the more sporadic use and with different combinations has slowed the production some. Though reserves generally tend not play as well on the road.

The Bulls again were careless with the ball, especially early with 11 of their 13 turnovers in the first half. Players said they tried to be too fine with interior passing against the traps and it backfired.

The Pacers led 23-19 after one quarter. But neither Deng not Boozer could find much in the second quarter, and with Rose somewhat tentative returning from his ankle sprain—though he had a shockingly fantastic back door cut for a two handed slam dunk that showed little difficulty—the Pacers surged ahead 49-33 at halftime with a 17-3 run to close the half while the Bulls were settling for threes and, as they noticed, not much activity.

“They went harder, got after loose balls,” said Thibodeau. “You can’t just jump against these guys. You have to hit. You have to block out and then fight. If you think you’re just going to out jump them, that’s not going to happen. They’re physical and will ram you under the basket. We have to play a lot tougher.”

The Pacers moved out 57-41, but Noah continued to make more decisive moves on offense, Deng hit a three, Noah a tip in of a Rose miss and Boozer a roll for a score, though the taunting technical seemed to stop the Bulls. If the Pacers hadn’t  missed five straight free throws there they might have run away. Still, they led 67-56 after three as Rose had seven assists in the quarter as the Bulls began to take what the Pacers gave him, as the players like to say.

“I’ve sprained my ankle a million times. I just wasn’t able to hit shots,” said Rose.

But Korver had a three overruled and taken off the scoreboard early in the fourth that came an instant late while A.J. Price got a couple of scores and Thibodeau rushed Rose back in. And then it wasn’t until the Bulls seemed dead that they finally came to life, though apparently just a bit too late.

“Pooh is a warrior,” said Noah in using Rose’s nickname.
He wants to be out there and compete. I feel even Pooh not at 100 percent can affect the game with his presence. They did a good job of putting two on him every time we set a pick. Someone has to make a play. We did that pretty well at times. But we’ll get better at it, too.”

They’ll have to, especially as the playoffs moves on, which the Bulls still certainly expect. You don’t go very far leaning on one man too much.

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