Bulls take 3-0 lead over Pacers


Apr 21

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That should be all, folks.

Yes, it’s now just 3-0 Bulls over the Indiana Pacers in the first round playoff series with Thursday’s rough and tumble 88-84 Bulls victory.

Sure, the Pacers could decide they want to try to go back to Chicago next week and come storming out in Saturday’s Game 4.

Though it seems like they tried just about everything they had left Thursday and still lost, yet again down the stretch as Derrick Rose scored on a twisting, left handed drive through a mass of Pacer with 17.8 seconds left in an 84-84 game.

“The whole time I was just thinking, “Go to the hole,’” said Rose, who had 23 points and was just four for 18 shooting against Indiana’s relentless trapping defenses. “It was tough the whole night the way they were playing me. I missed shots I usually hit. At that time, I saw space and opportunity and I just went.”

Rose somehow got through and forced in still another game winner in which the Bulls never could shake the Pacers. The Bulls have yet to lead in this series by more than seven points at any time while the Pacers had led the majority of time in the series. But once again the Bulls had the closer and the Pacers had the door slammed in their face.

It’s been a remarkably, unusual series with the Bulls tested through all three games by the Pacers, actually outscored in the first three quarters of the first three games combined by seven points. And then winning the fourth quarters by a combined 22 points with Rose averaging more than 10 points per game in the fourth quarter alone and 32.7 for the series.

“We have the best closer in the world,” said Joakim Noah, who had 11 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. “Everybody knows it. They know it. We know it. Their coach knows it. They all say it. They have no problems saying it. We all know it. That gives you confidence for your team.”

Indiana’s best player, Danny Granger, who led them with 21 points Thursday, hit four straight shots around two Paul George free throws to cut a 75-70 Bulls lead with seven minutes left to tie it with 1:42 remaining.

Luol Deng was crucial in keeping the Bulls in the game with 14 of his 21 points in the first half while the Pacers concentrated on shutting down Rose. But he missed a three. Darren Collison, unable to find Granger, lofted up an elbow jumper that was short, leaving it to Rose.

The Pacers had been aggressively trapping Rose, at times even in the backcourt. But this time Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called a one/four flat where the other Bulls players retreat to the baseline, leaving the court spread and open for Rose.

This series has been about Rose and the Pacers’ inability to limit him, and when it counted at the end they could not again even with Roy Hibbert and Granger collapsing on that last drive amidst a game filled with hard knocks and bitter fouls.

“Their game plan was to make it physical,” said Deng. “That’s fine with us. We have tough guys and we’re knocking down free throws. If that’s how the game goes, it’s totally fine with us. If they’re fouling when we are driving, we’ve got to get up and go right back and make our free throws. They can keep doing that. You’ve got to have the mindset to go right back and make your free throws.”

Play on.

It helped on Rose’s last drive that Kyle Korver was hot with 10 points in the fourth quarter and four of four field goals. So the Pacers were reluctant to leave him, leaving Granger to hesitate just a bit, thus further opening a lane just enough more for Rose’s drive.

Rose objected to one of Jeff Foster’s hard fouls, none of which the referees ruled a flagrant foul. Asked if he were bothered, Rose said “a little bit.” But he dismissed it, saying, “That’s basketball. That’s his job. I was just trying to go to the basket and create contact.

“It got a little rough out there,” Rose added with a shrug. “It’s basketball. They have something to prove. If anything, this was their last fight. They were back home (where) they feel good. They have a decent record at home. That was their game plan (to be physical). If we came to the basket to make sure they take a hard foul.”

But they couldn’t find Rose this time to do so and the Bulls were up by two with 17.8 seconds left.

“We’d been doing a good job of keeping him from the rim,” said Granger. “We broke down that last play and he got to the rim.”

But Granger also was streaking, making jumpers and drives late.

Still, for all of Rose’s brilliance, it also doesn’t get the Bulls as far as they have without their defense, and it was terrific again when it mattered most, the Pacers failing to score in the last 1:42.

But now it was down to one shot. Thibodeau was doing offense/defense substitutions and went with Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson, the latter to play a vital role.

Everyone knew the ball was going to Granger as they know it will go to Rose for the Bulls.

“I knew the play was going to Granger and they would want him to go to his right hand,” explained Deng. “I told Taj, ‘He’s not going to want to give the ball up. So when he comes off the pick let’s trap him and get it out of his hand and make someone else beat us.’ Taj was great. He (Granger) couldn’t split that blitz. Taj has quick feet and we always use that. We jumped on him and he gave the ball up. We knew it was coming back to him and then just try to make it a tough shot.”

With the game clock running down, Granger circling back finally took a handoff from Collison and fired an off balance 26 footer going to his left, his weak side. Brewer got the rebound and was fouled. He made two and that was the game.

 “We tried to run a play and they sniffed it out,” said Granger. “We didn’t get the look we wanted. It’s a credit to both their offense and their defense. They trapped me and I had to pass it back to (Collison). He handed it back to me and that was the best shot we could get. There’s no way we wanted it, but that’s the way it happened. Good teams, teams like the Bulls take away your first option, your second option.”

And likely that was the series.

And not just because it’s 3-0 and no NBA team has ever recovered from that deficit in the playoffs.

It’s more that the Pacers tried everything, and most of it worked.

They trapped Rose and he was just four of 18, though he was 13 of 15 from the free throw line. They put in Dahntay Jones to effectively face guard Rose, and he did a good job and scored 11 points off the bench. They battered Rose around a bit with hard fouls, mostly from Jeff Foster, a tough one midway through the third that brought some milling around and words. Another on the head of Deng. But the Bulls marched to the free throw line nine more times in the game on the road, likely the difference in the game.  There was a lot of post game talk about the hard fouls and retribution, but Rose was unruffled and no one seemed to think going down to that level was necessary.

“What’s unbelievable (about Rose) is he plays so strong and attacks the basket,” noted Korver. “He does it every game. He’s done it, what, 90 some games with preseason (and more than 100 with USA Basketball last summer). There are a lot of things about him that are amazing. But to take that pounding and keep going. That last drive with his left hand. I don’t even know how he got that shot off. But he keeps doing it every night.

“Obviously, there were some hard fouls,” Korver added. “We were all talking about it. But it’s not like it was 10 years ago. The rules are different. You’ve got to be smart. We played pretty physical, too. Send them home in four. That’s the plan.”

The Pacers also shut down Carlos Boozer, who was two of 10 for four points, though with 11 rebounds. The Bulls had hoped to ride Boozer early, but he again had fouls and was mostly ineffective, though he made two big plays late.

Indiana forced the Bulls to give up the ball again in the tight shell of a defense they play, forcing 16 turnovers and holding the Bulls to 37.9 percent shooting. Indiana also, as a result, got inside with a 38-16 edge in points in the paint, thus forcing the Bulls into more perimeter shooting.

Sort of the operation was a success but the patient died.

“I have confidence during the game and will keep fighting,” said Rose. “So what if I miss some shots. My other teammates were hitting them and I was finding them. I’m happy to have the teammates I have. They are fighting through everything with me even when we lose and when I miss shots. They still tell me to shoot the ball. They have confidence in me and I’m happy I have them.”

It was another terrific game and it has been a dramatic and exciting series. Some would suggest that is a failure for the Bulls given the Pacers came into the playoffs as the only team with a losing regular season record. But they’d played much better since the coaching change in late January. Plus, despite leading the league at 62-20, this isn’t exactly a championship ready Bulls team. Rose hadn’t even been on a playoff series winner his first two years in the NBA. And the playoffs isn’t about big wins as much as tough wins, and the Bulls already had two heading to Indianapolis.

Game 3 would be another.

The Bulls had game planned to try to get Boozer going with some quick post ups and quicker moves, though Boozer drew two quick fouls again and was replaced by Taj Gibson, who has been playing well, if sparingly, in this series. It seems obvious Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who is not one to overlook any game, also is understanding he needs a more productive Boozer  to make any serious playoff run. So he appears to be investing more in Boozer now, like 42 minutes in Game 2 at the expense of Gibson, and running Boozer back in for most of the second half of Game 3.

Boozer couldn’t get much of anything going, and though he wouldn’t acknowledge it after the game, he appeared to get frustrated enough in the fourth quarter to make a baseline spin move and dunk, a rare strong finish for him lately. He also had a good pass to Korver for Korver’s second straight three to make it 78-74 Bulls with 6:01 left when Korver’s man, Collison with Paul George on Rose, hedged in toward Boozer in the post.

“It’s how the game went,” Boozer said. “Didn’t get any free throws. I guess I didn’t get fouled. A grind it out, physical game. Right up my alley. The refs let us play, be men. All I care about is winning. I don’t care about my numbers. I don’t care about shooting one for 3,000. As long as we win. The whole locker room is like that. That’s why we’re in the position we’re in. We don’t care about stats. We’re a team. We have a superstar, MVP and I thought we all did a good job tonight handling adversity. We played great D and came away with the win.”

But Deng was sharp, hitting jumpers with a big first quarter shooting three of four, including a three, with three rebounds and four assists as the Bulls led 21-17 after one quarter.

“Luol Deng may have played his best game of the season,” said Boozer. “Tough defense, big shots, rebounds. He was a man tonight.”

The play, if not the pace, was frenetic and frantic in true playoff fashion. The Pacers were going hard and got a run going midway through the second quarter with Josh McRoberts putting a hesitation move past Boozer and then drawing a foul next time, Hibbert getting a little going, though the Bulls handled him well, especially Noah, and Collison closing the half at 42-42 with a driving score after a Rose three.

Collison wasn’t supposed to play with a sprained ankle, but came back with nine points. But he didn’t look as quick as usual and that might have helped the Bulls as Indiana then didn’t play T.J. Ford, who gives the Bulls some trouble with his scoring. The Bulls did do a much better job, as expected, running the Pacers off the three point line after they’d shot 46 percent the first two games. They were one for 10 Thursday. And while Indiana had a huge edge in the paint, they totaled just 11 assists as the Bulls did a good job cutting off their movement with overplays and forcing them into more one on one ball that resulted in 37.9 percent shooting for Indiana.

Noah was increasingly active and the Bulls are seeing signs of him getting stronger and more active on the boards again.

“He’s coming back,” said Rose. “Rebounding the ball, blocking shots, running with us on the fast breaks, getting us extra possessions, setting picks. He’s doing a lot for us. His conditioning is getting back to where it used to be.”

Neither team could get much going right after halftime until that hard foul by Foster on the Rose drive which had Foster with his arms up in feigned innocence and Bulls plays moving in. Coaches leaped up on the Bulls bench to keep anyone from going on the floor and risking a suspension.

But Thibodeau wasn’t the least bothered. He’s a hard foul guy, no matter whom. And he likes the free throws as Rose has shot 49 in the series. The entire Pacers’ team has attempted 62. In a low scoring, close series that can be the difference.

“This is the playoffs,” said Thibodeau. “There are going to be hard fouls. In my eyes, that’s what they’ve been doing the whole series. That’s part of the game. When it crosses over the line, I think the officials will make the call. I have a lot of respect for Foster. He’s a hard playing guy, a tough guy.”

Make free throws, not war.

Rose made his free throws, and Keith Bogans with a good shooting game hit his third three. But the Pacers responded behind Dahntay Jones’ aggressive play, both bodying up on Rose wherever he went and with a pair of scores. Deng had a beautiful step in move late that gave the Bulls a 65-64 lead going into the fourth.

But the Pacers’ defense was having an effect. Rose was three of 12 with 15 points and five turnovers as the Pacers abandoned the soft double they used for most of the first two games and went almost exclusively with an aggressive trap as Rose came off every pick. They’d then bring a man up to double the release player, leaving open the corners, where Bogans and Deng were five of eight on threes through three quarters.

The Pacers seemed about to take control with a 6-0 run to open the fourth for a 70-65 lead. Rose go it back with a pair of drives that each drew fouls, and then Korver was terrific with a three that had the Bulls bench erupting, another on that Boozer assist and a third when he pump faked and shot over Collison in a questionable matchup.

The Bulls also had given Deng some rest on defense with giving Bogans some time on Granger, and Bogans pretty much quieted Granger most of the third quarter as he rode Granger into two of seven shooting in the third.

But Korver is the finisher at shooting guard for his offense, and he’s seven of eight on threes in this series.

“We just, for whatever reason, lose him in transition,” said Granger of Korver. “We’ve lost him too many times, especially in the fourth quarter. We’re up four, and the next thing you know Korver gets hot and we’re down three. He burned us again.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Granger, “to be so close in so many games, just needing a few more plays.”

But once again it was the Bulls and Rose to make those plays, Rose’s drive for two free throws while leading 82-80 with 2:31 left, and then after the Pacers tied it up at 84, the winning dash to victory.

Someone wondered if the Bulls would get complacent now and look ahead.

Korver laughed and said, “I don’t know if you ever met our coach. His name is Tom Thibodeau. “We will not get ahead of ourselves.”

And certainly like Rose, who was asked how he felt after all the pinballing.

“I’m getting a lot of rest,” Rose said casually. “Hot, cold baths, treatments, massages. I’m feeling like a pro.”

Who could argue?

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