Have the Bulls found a new rival in the East?


Jan 26

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About that Bulls/Miami Heat Eastern Conference Finals, well, uh, you might want to wait a bit.

“We believe we are one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was saying after his team effectively shut down the Bulls in the second half on the way to a convincing 95-90 victory.

“They (Pacers’ players) believed they were going to win (the opening round playoff series) last year,” added Vogel. “They were crushed they didn’t win last year. The difference between this team and last year’s team is we have confidence we’ll score at crunch time, in the fourth quarter. We did not have that last year and it cost us the series. We believe going into the fourth quarter we can get stops and execute and win the close games.”

And that’s exactly what the Pacers, quietly now 12-5, did in holding the Bulls to 36 second half points, 16 in the fourth quarter, smothering Derrick Rose, who had just two fourth quarter points, and pounding the Bulls overall on the boards and inside to not only deal the Bulls their first home loss of the season, but raise questions on whether the Bulls this season have enough to beat the Pacers.

Ronnie Brewer

Sure, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson were out, which was significant. Though Ronnie Brewer had his best game of the season with 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals. A simmering Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau afterward said Brewer was the only Bulls player ready for the game. Not that Deng would have done more, but Brewer’s presence was missing from the Bulls bench, which was mostly ineffective with C.J. Watson zero for six shooting and Brian Scalabrine with a three point attempt with 22.9 seconds left with the Bulls trailing 92-90.

The game and a final, curious Bulls closing effort effectively ended there when both Brewer and Joakim Noah made efforts to save the Scalabrine miss. It was tipped, but to Indiana’s Darren Collison. He lost the ball coming into the halfcourt, but dove and pushed it toward Danny Granger, who passed it inside for a Roy Hibbert slam dunk for a 94-90 lead with 13.1 seconds left.

With Rose getting double team attention on top of the floor, Noah tried to squeeze a pass inside to Carlos Boozer, who only then was substituted for Scalabrine. But Indiana intercepted.

“We know we made mistakes that hurt us,” said Noah. “Bad turnover from me to end. I feel like I should have been more aggressive going to the basket. I can always look back and (maybe should have given) the ball to my point guard in that situation.”

Granger was then fouled and made one of two free throws for the final margin.

“We started sluggishly,” insisted Thibodeau, though the Bulls led by 10 at halftime. “We were not sharp. In this league, you get what you deserve. We played with desperation in the fourth quarter and gave more effort. That effort has to be there from the start of the game. I don’t think we were as aggressive as we needed to be. We got to the line 12 times in the first half and three in the second half. They had 50 points in the paint. You’ve got to be ready to play every night. As soon as you start feeling good about yourself, you are going to get knocked on your ass. That’s the way it is.”

Indiana was the better team Wednesday.

“They were the aggressor,” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 24 points but with just three assists as the Bulls shot poorly. “They were getting to rebounds, loose balls. They were quicker than us. Usually we outrebound teams. It did not happen tonight. It hurts not playing with (Deng and Gibson), but this is the NBA. No excuses. We can’t say we lost the game because we didn’t have them. We were up 10 at halftime.”

The Pacers were stronger on the inside, usually a Bulls edge, and they forced the ball out of Rose’s hands enough to end up with that unexpected big shot for Scalabrine, who rarely plays at key junctures. He has of late given the injuries. But it was almost head shaking to see him with a last, potential game winner. Still, teammates said it was the right play.

“The guy was wide open in the corner,” said Brewer. “Derrick could have taken a shot with guys on him or passed to a wide open person. (Scalabrine) works on that shot every day. It’s a good shot for him. It just didn’t go in.”

One irony to me is Scalabrine usually passes up shots to step in closer with a pump fake or he passes. This time he took a skip pass from Rose wide open and didn’t hesitate for a three.

“We were looking for Derrick in the open floor and I thought he made the right play,” said Thibodeau. The help was there. They collapsed. Scalabrine open in the corner for a three. Make or miss league. We missed.”

Thibodeau said he was satisfied, at least with that, though he could have called his final timeout after a David West miss and Noah rebound with 35.8 seconds left. He’d gone 20 seconds earlier with Scalabrine for Carlos Boozer on an offense/defense switch after West beat Boozer with a runner for a 92-88 lead. The Pacers went to West, but Noah got him on a switch and stopped the short jumper and grabbed the rebound in a good effort for him again with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

But Thibodeau stayed with Scalabrine, who missed the shot and then called his final timeout with 13.1 seconds left and trailing by four to get Boozer back in. Thibodeau apparently did not want to waste that timeout sooner with the Bulls down two and 35.8 seconds left, which is reasonable. But it backfired with Scalabrine’s miss.

“I was trusting my teammate,” said Rose. “At the time, I thought I didn’t have a shot. I think I made the right play. I thought I had a lay-up, but (Roy) Hibbert or someone came over and I just tried to make the right play. That’s usually his shot. I’d give it to him again. It was a good shot. Little short. I just tried to make the winning play. But, if anything, I’m going to learn from this. We’re going to learn from this as a team. We’re not going to put ourselves in this position anymore. We’re going to put teams away early.”

We condemn LeBron James often for this, so an eye has to be cast toward Rose. Scalabrine was in the game and got a wide open shot. He did what he was supposed to do. The question is if you are the closer and the scorer do you put yourself on the line and see what happens? Or do you, as James often says, make the right basketball play?

The Bulls slowed it up into the halfcourt to set up trailing by two. Rose has indicated he likely won’t be fully recovered from his toe injury this season and won’t be dunking as much, and earlier in the game he did miss a layup when he previously would have dunked the ball. Was he too injured to finish? He’d never say. The Pacers had played Collison on Rose early and later in the game went with the taller and long-armed Paul George with 7-2 Hibbert providing help.

Rose drew Collison this time and went strong over a Noah screen toward his left. David West steppd out, but Rose was too quick and got past him. Rose then planted hard and rose into the air as Hibbert laying back in the lane went up with both hands. As Hibbert went up with both hands and with Rose perhaps two feet away, Rose took the ball in both hands and fired it along the baseline, where Scalabrine was unguarded in the right corner. Scalabrine’s shot hit the front rim, and in the ensuing scramble the Pacers got that Hibbert dunk for the four point lead with 13.1 seconds left.

We know Rose doesn’t fear the big moment or finishing at the rim. He probably could have drawn contact, though the officials were letting an awful lot go. I don’t believe they would have called a foul then with Hibbert pretty much going straight up. There was a player wide, wide open. But, then again, star players are supposed to make plays, right?

It was interesting to see the Bulls post game reaction, though almost as much as the Pacers.

The Pacers’ players were jubilant with West punching the air and Danny Granger running off with a No. 1 finger held aloft like the Joe Namath picture from Super Bowl III.

“I still (will) never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game,” said Rose. “I can’t wait to play them again. The next game… we’ll definitely be ready for that game.”

The Bulls locker room was deathly funereal. I thought it a bit of an overreaction given the team is 16-4, though it does say something about how serious they take the game, even one in the regular season of a most irregular season. It suggests just how serious this Bulls team is, which is a credit to them.

Though you also get the feeling the Pacers feel emboldened, especially after the way they blew those playoff games last season, particularly the first two in Chicago where the Bulls made remarkable late comebacks to win. They surely seethed about that, and with the additions of West and George Hill and the development of Hibbert you get the sense the Pacers believe they now have a physical edge over the Bulls.

Indiana doesn’t go quite as deep, really only through seven legitimate players. But they power inside to Hibbert, who has developed a nice hook and had 20 points and eight rebounds to complement Granger with 22 points and West with 14.

“You’ve got to give Indiana credit,” said Brewer, whose hustle and 14 second quarter points gave the Bulls that 54-44 halftime lead. “It’s not just that we missed shots (40 percent with Richard Hamilton six of 20). They play hard, physical in the paint. It’s not like we took bad shots. They get the ball in the paint, and then you have to respect their shooters (five of 10 on threes). So you dig (to help) and they kick out and make you scramble, and then they pump fake and Granger and Paul George get to the basket and make plays for their bigs. They did a phenomenal job.”

It is a different challenge for the Bulls than Miami, an athletic team with transition wing players who can run you out of the game. The Pacers play power basketball, punching it inside. The Bulls ran, doubling Indiana on fast breaks 20-10. But Indiana had that 50-40 edge in the paint, and it’s rare for the Bulls to give up that much inside the way their defense is designed to deny paint penetration. But both Hibbert and West bullied their way deep inside for their postups, leading to short scores.

In addition, they made it hard for the Bulls to get inside as Hibbert had four blocks.

Watson’s shot was well off, and Hamilton’s as well. I thought the Bulls did marginalize Rose some as the offense overemphasized Hamilton coming off screens and pulling up for jumpers. Hamilton didn’t seem able to square up very well and his shot was too often awry. He did have 17 points, but 20 shots seems way too much for him. Especially when he’s six of 16 after three quarters. He would then miss all four of his fourth quarter attempts.

“He is a primary scorer, also a playmaker,” noted Thibodeau. “If he’s open, we want him to shoot; if not, move the ball. Get the ball moving side to side. We want to attack before the defense is set and get some easy baskets. We didn’t do that.”

It did go fairly well for the Bulls early, though the Bulls bench was upset with the officiating. Rose was attacking the basket with eight shots, but he got one free throw. That was the team total for the quarter against a physical Indiana team.

Thibodeau gave rookie Jimmy Butler a look early, but the game was a bit too intense for the rookie. He committed a pair of turnovers and Granger got off quickly against him with two open threes, and Butler was done for the night. Rose would hit a desperation three at the buzzer to give the Bulls a seeming 26-24 lead. But it came a fraction late and was wiped off, a late what if.

The Bulls appeared as if they were going to take the game with a big second quarter close and continue to dominate the Pacers at the United Center, where the Bulls had won 12 of the last 14 over Indiana. Brewer was the catalyst and Carlos Boozer was running the court, finishing a fast break and getting a blocked shot. After Indiana took a 35-34 lead midway through the second quarter, Brewer scored 14 of the Bulls next 17 points with an assortment of dazzling hustle plays. He ran out for a fast break, got a back door pass from Boozer and then another, grabbed his own miss and scored, ran out and slammed and hit a pull up. And then when Rose got a block on Collison from behind and threw ahead to Hamilton for a score and three point play, it looked like the Bulls had pushed the Pacers into the wall on the way to a victory lap.

“We turned up our defense and got that run after being down 10 and literally giving that lead to them,” said Granger. “Right now we expect to win.”

The Pacers stuck to their game plan, and it began to pay off. They pounded to Hibbert deep and he scored, and Granger stepped out for threes. Less than four minutes into the second half, it was a two-point Bulls lead. And the Bulls could not stop the Pacers. Tyler Hansbrough, who always plays well against the Bulls, scored three times late in the quarter throwing himself at the rim, Hibbert hit a short face up and free agent acquisition West powered inside as well.

“We’re a power post team,” said Vogel. “That’s our identity first and foremost. We have three guys flat out who kill in the low post, Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert and David West. Our offense is designed to get the ball to those guys.”

Joakim Noah

The Pacers did and it enabled them to head into the fourth quarter with a 75-74 edge.

They began to pull away with West scoring on a driving slam dunk, Hansbrough and West powering in and being fouled, and though Rose tried there wasn’t enough this time. Brewer wore out and missed all four of his fourth quarter shots as did Hamilton. Noah was doing all he could on the boards, holding off the Pacers practically by himself, including dunking his own miss to bring the Bulls within 89-86 with 3:18 left after the Bulls had trailed by seven. But the Bulls’ shots just wouldn’t fall this time as their urgency picked up. A Rose three spun out and a running drive also rolled off the rim. Brewer rebounded that one and missed point blank. The Bulls did get a break trailing by four with 1:33 when a Brewer charge was reversed to a block and he made both free throws. West followed with that short runner, and then the Bulls got another break when Hamilton’s jumper missed but the Pacers lost it out of bounds and Hamilton then was fouled and made both free throws to pull within 92-90 with 57.7 seconds left.

Scalabrine came into the game between those shots, and then found himself with the big shot after the Bulls denied West on the next possession.

The Bulls were flying around now, though too late in Thibodeau’s view as they outrebounded Indiana 19-12 in the fourth after being dominated until then.

“We’re a totally different team from last year,” said Hibbert. “It was my first time in the playoffs and we learned from that experience. It made us a better team and the Bulls taught us how to fight to the end to win.”

It should make these games very interesting this time.

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