Bulls finish off Pacers in five


Apr 27

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It wasn’t quite the ultimate goal, but all the same for the Bulls in this gift of an NBA season it was an accomplishment and a relief, the first round playoff series win with Tuesday’s going away 116-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

This hasn’t been a Bulls team that’s celebrated, not when they wrapped up the Central Division, not when they clinched the best record in the NBA, still a stunner for a group not given much chance of being more than a middle of the pack hopeful.

So Joakim Noah, whose energetic start helped the Bulls to a wire to wire win and who by the close was being literally chased down by angry Pacers, felt he could let his hair down. Figuratively, of course, since literally it hangs somewhere between his shoulders and Lake Michigan.

“Taj-a-woooooo,” Noah bellowed across the locker room at Taj Gibson, who played brilliantly for an ineffective and injured Carlos Boozer with 10 points, seven rebounds and one minor angry confrontation with the Pacers.

“Taj-a-woo, was huge,” Noah was saying loudly. “Look what Taj did. To me, it changed everything the way he played. He was huge rebounding, offense and defense, that lucky (crap) shot off the glass.

“It feels great,” said Noah, who finished with 14 points, eight assists and four blocks while Derrick Rose and Luol Deng did the heavy scoring lifting with 49 points combined. “We’ll enjoy the moment tonight and get ready to listen to Thibodeau some more.”

You get the sense Noah’s insouciance doesn’t always mesh with Thibodeau’s precision and perfectionism.

“Taj-a-woooo,” Noah continued.

Gibson, quietly listening to music as he’s usually not much of a subject for interviews, looked across the room with exasperation.

“Don’t call me that,” he pleaded. “Now, everyone will know you call me that.”

“That’s your name,” Noah shot back. “Taj-a-wooooo.”

Yes, it was time to relax and have a little fun as this was a long time coming. It was just the second time since 1998 (that generally is the year AD for the Bulls) the Bulls won a first round playoff series, the first for Rose, who showed little effect from his near fatal sprained ankle and had 25 points and six assists in just 30 minutes with foul trouble.

“I’m speechless right now,” Rose said. “I really can’t believe it. It’s a great accomplishment. I’m happy for my teammates, the coaching staff. We’ll try to keep this thing going.”

It was good Rose was speechless as it gives him a chance to know how we often feel watching him. Less than three minutes into the game he blew through the Pacers’ suddenly less aggressive defense, cupped the ball and scored as the Bulls opened up ahead 14-2.

Then in the third quarter when the Pacers made their only run of the game, pulling within 61-57 with 6:17 left after leading by 13 four minutes before, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau brought Rose back despite four fouls.

“I told him I wasn’t going to foul anymore,” Rose said.

You just want to hug him sometimes. As talented and remarkably skilled, Rose also has this charming naïveté and you could almost hear him saying something like that to his mom about going to the park and promising to be home before dark. So Thibodeau decided to let Rose go back in the game. Thibodeau did say he didn’t like the way things were going, anyway.

And Rose just took over and effectively ended the game and the series.

Despite being five of 33 on threes in the series to that point, Rose made three three pointers in the next three minutes as the Bulls closed the quarter with a 23-6 run to head into the fourth leading 84-65. He also made a block on Pacers’ 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who was about to shoot over Noah.

In the process, the Pacers’ gallant effort had evaporated into a meltdown with Josh McRoberts ejected late in the third for firing elbow and forearm shivers at Noah and the Pacers, most publicly Danny Granger, charging Noah was a dirty player and they were merely retaliating for Noah cheap shots.

Granger went so far as to try to get at Noah after the game, stopped by Thobodeau as Deng also tried to calm him. And we thought KG was the coward and thug. Skinny, hippie Joakim Noah the next Bill Laimbeer? C’mon.

Noah still is trying to lift the bench when they say bench press.

Anyway, the Bulls open the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday in the United Center against either the Atlanta Hawks or Orlando Magic. The Hawks hold a 3-2 edge in that series with Game 6 in Atlanta Thursday.

But if the Bulls can play like they did Tuesday, it would be a short series against either in easily their best game of the first round. Six Bulls players on the generally offensively challenged team scored in double figures with Rose at 25, Deng at 24 and Keith Bogans hitting five threes for a playoff career high 15 points.

Pacers players kept yelling at Bogans, generally stationed in the baseline corner in front of the Pacers bench, to shoot. Bogans made five of seven threes, turning back to the Pacers bench to thank them for their support.

“Mostly (James) Posey and (Dahntay) Jones,” laughed Bogans. “I got in some trash talking.”

The Bulls also had 27 assists on 40 baskets after averaging just 18 in the series, got out in transition, finally, with 17 fast break points and were a healthy 14 of 31 on threes, a new team playoff record for threes in a half and a game.

“It was big,” said Kyle Korver, who had 13 points and a floor spreading 14 shots. “We needed to have a picture of how we needed to play offensively.”

That was, in part, because the Bulls came in averaging 93 points the first four games and had trailed at halftime in all four. The Pacers kept saying they should have or could have won any of those. No one said anything like that Tuesday.

“Obviously we’ve been struggling to score,” added Korver. “Whoever is next will see what Indiana did to us and will do a lot of the same things. We got to see how we actually score and are effective.”

There was much talk in the series of how well Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel had done and had won the coaching battle. I disagree. Yes, the Pacers played hard, but why shouldn’t they have? They were in the playoffs for the first time in several years. The Pacers did well, at times, putting length in Paul George and activity in Jones on Rose. They also had some success taking the ball out of his hands with aggressive traps off the high pick and roll, which the Bulls had trouble adjusting to with Boozer the pressure release man having an awful series.

The Bulls will need much more from him as the playoff continue after he had two points in 15 minutes and left with fouls once again and a big toe injury. And we know what can happen to the foot when the captain is aching.

“I went up for a shot, the one I made in the second quarter and felt a pop,” Boozer said. “I’m just going to get it right. It’s a good thing we got some time before the next [series]. The X-ray was negative, no broken bones.”

Turf toe, someone wondered.

“Just keep getting it better,” Boozer said. “I don’t know what it’s called. Whatever you want to use. I’ll see how it goes every day. There’s a great deal of pain now. I’ll work on it. I’ve got until the next round starts.”

Yes, teams will look at what the Pacers had success with. But I thought Indiana waiting to trap until basically Game 3, when they began using Jones also, probably cost them a game. And, curiously, they weren’t nearly as aggressive trapping Rose in Game 5, giving him more room to operate. And as Rose always has said if they play off him he’ll shoot. And he shot the Bulls down.

Conversely, I thought Thibodeau made just the right adjustments to put the Bulls in position to take the series.

The Bulls had been starting slowly, as they often do with Noah and Bogans not typically scorers and now Boozer contributing little. Rose for all his brilliance tends to ease into games. So Thibodeau pushed the team to come out not only more aggressively but with more pace to its game.

It showed right away as Bogans hit a three off the Pacers truly only aggressive trap of the game, Deng slid in on a backdoor pass from Noah, the Noah took a pass from Deng for a score and three point play and Rose had that blow by drive before a Noah spinning baseline lefty hook.

“We came out with a lot of intensity and fire,” Deng said. “That’s something we haven’t done. Indiana throughout the season has come out more aggressive. We made a point to change that.”

In that sequence, Noah also had a block on Roy Hibbert, who was mostly ineffective, and drew an offensive foul.

I also thought Thibodeau made a nice adjustment which helped reduce the Bulls turnovers, which had been a big issue. You could see the Bulls big men, who are not the greatest natural athletes, over thinking in the some of the earlier games, almost going through a progression to work out the plays, like the steps in a golf swing. Not only do the Bulls have a lot of plays and Thibodeau always adds, but they have a lot of sequences requiring big men with interior passing.

Thibodeau changed some of those to involve the wings in the plays, getting more natural speed and cutting into the plays and cutting down the turnovers.

I also saw a new wrinkle where the Bulls ran Rose off some baseline screen action for a backdoor, which fooled the Pacers and some quicker pick and roll stuff, what they call drags where the pick and roll set up more on the run. This way the Bulls weren’t letting the Pacers’ defense, which is long, get set, a problem in earlier games.

Good defense helped in that as well as the Bulls were able to get out in transition, and I thought another big adjustment was not going directly into the pick and roll on offense. The Bulls had been predictable with their pick and roll. But they seemed to be moving the ball crosscourt first and then getting onto the pick and roll, forcing the Pacers to move and adjust. Thus the Pacers didn’t seem to be able to dig in, where the Pacers had been hitting the ball harder. It’s tougher to land a hard blow on a moving target.

“We knew we were capable of playing better,” said Thibodeau. “To be up 3-1 you’ve got to do a lot of things well. In the playoffs every win is hard to get. You’ve got to earn them. I liked our intensity. We played hard and smart. I thought the defense was very good. We had a multiple effort mentality. Derrick hit those big shots. He basically took it over from the middle of the third. I thought he was great. I didn’t think he had any (ankle) problems.

“I can’t say enough about Luol,” said Thibodeau. “Put him in the book every night. Count on him. He’s the glue of the tam. He keeps us together through everything, defense, rebounding, passing, scoring, whatever you need.”

Deng was terrific. He also had seven assists, six rebounds, three steals and a block and made three three pointers in as good an all around game as you’ll see in a clincher. Plus, he hurt his wrist drawing a charge and played his usual game high minutes, this time 41 even with the blowout as the Bulls went up 26 midway through the fourth quarter.

Also seeing Boozer’s difficulties, Deng rose to the occasion on the boards with key rebounds, though the Boozer issue could grow large.

He admitted to frustration, but continued to say it’s all about winning and commended teammates. He’s been upbeat on the outside, but clearly is searching. He cannot seem to find space playing with Noah. With the Jazz he played with a perimeter shooting three in Mehmet Okur, and as good as Rose is, he’s not quite as adept as Deron Williams was in getting Boozer easy shots.

Gibson provided a huge lift coming in for Boozer with energy and even shooting well, though Thibodeau said he’d stay with his same rotation.

“I had a great time playing,” said Gibson.  “We just let it all hang out and went after that win. It shows that we’re a humble team and we understand we have a long way to go.  In the playoffs every single possession is tough.  There are no let downs.  There’s always hard fouls.  We just have to be patient and get into the flow.” 

Boozer has had foul trouble all series against Indiana, but it will be a question to watch how Thibodeau uses Boozer as the games move on and whether he increases Gibson’s minutes. It doesn’t appear something Thibodeau wants to do.

“Jo’s activity was terrific,” Thibodeau continued. “Playing from the lead was important. I thought Keith was terrific the way he shot the ball and I thought the ball movement and screening was a lot better.”

There wasn’t much to be unhappy about other than the uncertainty about Boozer.

It was surprising to see the Pacers hysterical reaction to Noah, of all people, now supposedly being the Bulls’ goon.

The guy says thank you if you start a question mentioning he played well. It’s like asking Ghandi if he stuck up a gas station. OK, maybe not Ghandi, but you get the idea.

“I heard they were mad,” said Noah. “I wasn’t dirtier than anyone else. It was a battle down there. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I was just trying to win.”

Noah had talked about his grandfather from Cameroon coming to see him play for the first time ever as a pro, and Noah responded in his usual way with entreaties to the zestful crowd to cheer while his play was met with imprecations from his foes.

“He’s a dirty player,” Granger said as he demonstrated in the locker room with teammates the alleged illegal hits. “He was playing dirty, elbowing people in the face and cheap-shooting people. That’s dirty basketball. Everybody saw what Josh did and he got ejected. Nobody caught what happened first. It’s always the second man. He was playing dirty the whole game. My teammates got caught with it and nothing happened.”

As the game ended and Thibodeau was walking to shake hands with Vogel, Thibodeau ended up arm barring Granger to stop him from going toward Noah, who was trying to get into the stands to greet his grandfather. He wouldn’t have looked good with a black eye.

“I don’t know what I was going to say to him,” Granger said. “I know one thing, the game was over and our series was over so I couldn’t be suspended until next season so that was on my mind. In the heat of the moment you don’t want to run off and do something stupid. I almost let my emotions get the best of me. (Thibodeau) was trying to tell me to calm down and he stopped me from going over there and not to do anything stupid. … I can’t say what I would have said.”

Deng also interceded and tried to talk with Granger and later said everyone knows Noah isn’t a dirty player.

“It was just physical basketball,” said Vogel. “(McRoberts) said he got an elbow in the throat. In this series, everyone got an elbow in the throat.”

And the Pacers were the ones who couldn’t swallow the result in the end.

The Bulls had stormed ahead 36-25 after one quarter as Noah had 10 and Rose 11, though the Pacers hung in and trailed just 54-46 at halftime though seemingly badly outplayed. Omer Asik got his most time of the series and did well in the second quarter with Noah and Boozer with foul problems. Boozer said he could have returned, if necessary, but ended up sitting out the last 18 minutes.

The Bulls defense was the most active it’s been in the series as players ran the Pacers off the three point line and were brilliant in helping and pressuring inside as Hibbert got little going. Granger led with 20 points, but wasn’t a major factor.

And the Bulls were running as they closed the half with a beautiful fast break with Deng hitting Korver for a dunk and earlier Korver even getting down the lane for a scoop layup.

The Pacers made their run early in the third when Rose went out, but Thibodeau got him back in quickly and the Bulls closed things out as Bogans dropped in a pair of jumpers to end the third and McRoberts lost control, a microcosm of this game for the Pacers. Rose said he had no issues with his ankle sprain from Game 4, though only was concerned something would happen. Nothing did.

“Being on this team with these guys is great,” enthused Rose. “It feels good being back on a winning team. I haven’t been on a team like this since college. The front offfice did a great job picking the right guys. Thibs has been doing a great job, the coaching staff has been great and it’s paying off. Last year (in the playoffs), it was, “Do we have a chance?’ We really didn’t have a chance. This year we have a legitimate chance to win almost every game we go in. If we play hard on the defensive end it should be easy for us.”

The Bulls match up better against the erratic and unpredictable Hawks team than the Magic, though this is why the No. 1 seed is crucial. Miami and Boston now figure to play a brutal battle to get to the conference finals. It’s a much easier potential path for the Bulls, though no certainty given the struggles of Boozer and the generally declining bench production in this series. But it’s a very good start.

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