Pacers too much for Bulls in 111-101 victory


Feb 5

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Forget the Miami Heat. Well, not completely. But the Bulls and Indiana Pacers could be a heck of a playoff series this spring the way this physical rivalry is developing between the two top defensive teams in the league.

Though it wasn’t quite that formula Monday in the snow day makeup game from December 26th as the Bulls still without Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich lost to the Pacers 111-101.

“We started off in a big hole,” noted Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau about the Pacers’ opening salvo 13-2 lead. “We had to get out and were scrambling from there. We were trying to give ourselves a chance. I thought we were in position with five minutes to go. I liked the way we fought back. It was very winnable.”

Marco Belinelli

After coming into the fourth quarter trailing 87-76 and the Pacers soon adding a three to make it 14, the Bulls cut the Indiana lead to 96-92 with 4:06 left, and then again back to 98-94 with 1:59 left when it appeared a Marco Belinelli driving miss went off the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert. But the officials called it Indiana ball, and an agitated Thibodeau wondered aloud why the officials wouldn’t check replay, which is permitted in the last two minutes.

“(Official) Mike Callahan asked (official) Mark Lindsay and he said there was no need,” Thibodeau explained. “It’s subjective. If there’s any question, supposedly you do it (use replay).”

There was a question from Thibodeau, who didn’t get an answer. Thibodeau appeared furious with Lindsay and after the game seemed to give Lindsay a stink eye look as he headed to the locker room. Though Thibodeau can look like that on many days. It bears investigation.

“We got a tough whistle,” Thibodeau said in which is about as accusatory as he publicly gets about officiating. “It happens. Some calls we should have had went against us. But that’s part of it. You have to have the mental toughness to get through it. You can’t let that lead to not executing or reckless fouling.”

But that turned out to be the turning point in this latest Bulls/Pacers soap opera as the very impressive Paul George came back with a three for a seven-point lead as Jimmy Butler was a bit late coming around a screen. Though George with 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists does this thing of late to most everyone. That gave the Pacers, now tied with the Bulls at 29-19 for the Central Division lead, a 101-94 lead with 1:18 left.

“Paul George and David West (with a game high 29 points) obviously carried us offensively and the work Paul did on (Luol) Deng, he was four of 18, was big,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “He’s (George) a great two way player (with two first names, which is equally rare). I’m proud of how we’re growing on the offensive end.”

George ran back as a timeout was called pointing to his heart. Though it appeared to me more the thoracic diaphragm. That controls breathing, so perhaps he was expressing relief he could breathe again. Mark Lindsay didn’t look at the replay on that one, either. Though he appeared to be silently singing the song, Arizona. I could have been wrong, however.

George, who made the All-Star team, has excelled without injured Danny Granger and made the two plays of the game, a spectacular over the shoulder dunk on a lob pass from George Hill late in the third quarter for an 83-71 lead. It would be ESPN’s No. 1 highlight play of the day. George also threw a behind the back, through his legs Magic Johnsonesque bounce pass on a fast break to Hill for a layup in the first quarter. George is a fabulous Larry Bird gift as the former general manager picked George No. 10 in the 2010 draft and George has become the best player from that draft. Bird also took a chance on shooting guard Lance Stephenson in the second round in that draft, and while Stephenson isn’t exactly a fundamental player, he is talented and athletic and had 15 points, the Pacers’ athleticism also exceeding the Bulls’ without Rose.

The Bulls then came out of a timeout and worked the ball around to Deng, whose baseline jumper was around and out against strong defense from George, who even back in the 2011 playoffs was defending Derrick Rose.

The Bulls fouled West as he rebounded. He made both free throws for a 105-94 lead with a minute left to effectively end the Bulls chances on this mission impossible trip with Rose, obviously out, Noah and Hinrich still out and Carlos Boozer back after missing three games with a hamstring injury. Boozer termed himself at about 70 percent capacity.

Boozer had 10 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes while the Bulls were led by Marco Belinelli with a season high 24 points off the bench despite suffering a sprained ankle late in the first half that looked like it might keep him out. The Bulls had seven players score in double figures. Belinelli returned, still limping some, after halftime to score 17 second half points. Nate Robinson, who Monday was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for last week, played an excellent all around game with 19 points, nine assists and three steals and made a trio of three pointers.

But without Noah and a limited Boozer the Bulls were dominated on the boards 47-35 even though their will remained strong with an edge in second chance points. Taj Gibson playing for Noah had 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. But the Pacers’ size without Noah was too daunting, though less so at center with Hibbert, who more resembles a blue heron the way he appears to be flapping uncontrollably on a drive. It was at power forward where West was dominant against Deng and Butler, just too difficult a matchup with Boozer limited in minutes in his return from the hamstring issue.

The Pacers then sort of hid West on Butler on defense as the Bulls weren’t able to do much to exploit that matchup. Though Butler had 10 points, his outside shooting game still is lacking. So the Pacers dropped off and Butler remains a somewhat reluctant shooter who’d rather attack the rim. But with Hibbert hanging inside as neither Boozer nor Gibson could make enough to draw him out, and with West laying back in the lane the driving was more difficult.

Both Deng and Butler were overmatched against the physical West, who bullied them inside for scores while Deng and Gibson continued their marathon play with more than 44 minutes each. Thibodeau gave Marquis Teague a look when Robinson got two early fouls, and also went briefly with Daequan Cook. But the coach didn’t use Nazr Mohammed or Vladimir Radmanovic after uneven outings last weekend back east. Thus the Bulls disadvantage in size remained, though with Noah not expected out long and Boozer returning, the Bulls haven’t indicated any interest in making any additions at this point. They’re not likely to trade as there’s little interest in Richard Hamilton with his large contract and buyout cost for next season and anyone else of particular value, like Belinelli or Butler, they need.

Robinson did a better than usual job trying to move the ball side to side, though Hinrich is more skilled at that. Thus the Bulls weren’t able to make the Pacers’ defense react quite enough with just 18 assists overall on 39 baskets. Still, it was the Pacers’ rare offensive outburst, though somewhat more frequent of late, that more stymied the Bulls. Point guard George Hill had 22 points as Robinson tends more to go under screens. The Pacers total was a regulation season high scoring on 52.7 percent shooting. The Pacers had just beaten Miami shooting 55.7 percent and won their 14th straight at home Monday. The rescheduled game also gives the Pacers starting Monday the only three in three nights in the NBA this season.

“They had a lot of guys that got hot and you’re going to have nights like that when guys are making tough shots,” said Gibson. “Our defense kind of let down a little bit. But we had a shot in the fourth quarter. We just didn’t come up with it.”

The Bulls were a play or two away, just as they were in the loss in Brooklyn Friday that preceded the overwhelming win in Atlanta Saturday as they’re now 2-2 on this trip that concludes in Denver and Utah later this week, both national TV games starting 9:30 p.m. Chicago time.

So the positive the Bulls take is how contested the game was even without Noah and Hinrich. The Pacers still are without Danny Granger, who is expected to return from his season long injury issues this month. And while the Bulls’ success without Rose, who could return from his knee surgery in March, has produced talk and dreams of another playoff matchup with Miami there are plenty of teams in the way, like the Pacers.

“We know this team (Bulls) is coming to challenge us,” said Hill. “We did a great job of dialing in on all of their guys. This was a huge win. We played the number one team in Miami and then New York. Chicago is right there. This is a big win for us, definitely playing against a division team.”

Noah talked before the game of perhaps giving it a try later this week with his plantar fasciitis, which is a difficult issue to predict. Noah then went out to join his teammates dressed in his usual Eddie Vedder thrift store chic, which is not exactly the NBA sideline favorite. NBA officials apparently contacted the Bulls during the game to tell Noah to change clothes or stay in the locker room. Generally a fine comes with that, and many have come to Noah, among others around the NBA over the last few years, as the NBA quietly maintains a fashion police. They review TV pregame and postgame films and send fines to players if their modes of dress are not considered appropriate around the arena.

No, they may not have that much better to do.

“It was a rivalry game,” said Gibson. “We understand that every time we step on the court with them the two teams have something to prove to the other. We are trying to win our division, they are trying to win the division. Right now they have a 2-0 edge on us head to head so they’re ahead of us in the standings.”

The Pacers showed they were ready with a 13-2 bolt out of the blocks. The Bulls came back strong and would close the quarter leading 29-28 behind tough play from Richard Hamilton, who had eight points. But Hamilton would only play seven minutes after the first quarter. Hamilton finished with 10 points on five of nine shooting and cleverly ran Stephenson around and over screens with veteran ease.

But late in the quarter, Belinelli hitting a three stepped on the foot of Pacers’ reserve Orlando Johnson and seemed to severely sprain his right foot. Thibodeau left Belinelli in to shoot the free throw as he also was fouled on the shot, which was a wise move. Belinelli could have come out injured and someone else shoot. But then he couldn’t return even though as he left the Bulls declared Belinelli’s return questionable. So with foul trouble and another injury, it was a Bulls backcourt of Teague and Cook. Yes, next man in.

Belinelli then returned midway through the second quarter, though limping some and sprained ankle issues do sometimes worsen the next day. So the Bulls still will wait to see about Belinelli’s availability.

The Bulls hung in even as Thibodeau tried to sneak a few minutes rest for Gibson and Deng together in the second with Butler trying to play West and Tyler Hansbrough, the latter who bullied his way in for three scores early in the second.

The Pacers are a physical team, and the Bulls seemed to feel Indiana was getting away with a lot of pushing, hitting and holding, though the Bulls aren’t a complaining type group. They generally make as many annoyed faces in a month as Dwyane Wade makes in a quarter. But they were crinkling this time as the Pacers even shot 12 more free throws. The Bulls and Pacers are one/two in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, one of the prime barometers of defensive play. Along with the Grizzlies, they rank in the top three in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN stats.

Indiana made a run late in the second with Stephenson showing off a behind the back pass of his own for a West score and 60-54 halftime lead. Again, Hamilton had a good start to the third quarter, giving Stephenson a course in two guard play you might have seen from Reggie Miller. But the Pacers got a big close to the third as West muscled his way in even against Gibson for an 87-76 lead after three.

The Pacers opened the fourth with a Hill three for that 14-point lead, and while the Bulls got close enough to make the Pacers consider their elite status, it wasn’t close enough to change their opinion after beating the Heat, Knicks and Bulls in the last month that the East title comes through Indianapolis.

“More than anything, (Chicago) is division champs,” said West. “We’re chasing them. So we just approached this game knowing how well they are coached and how well they play. They’re just a tough team and we knew we’d have to bring our best effort.”

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