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Bulls crash just short of finish line in Indy
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 4
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Jimmy Butler, who set a career high with 20 points, had just hit a three pointer to bring the Bulls within 95-92 with 19.9 seconds left in the game after George Hill, who had a good game, had gagged up a pair of free throws to give the Bulls a chance in this unusual game against the Indiana Pacers Sunday in Indianapolis.
Unusual in that Derrick Rose sat on the Bulls bench for the first time all season, though Rose and most everyone else but the media and the ESPN national broadcast dismissed it as insignificant. It could just have been Rose wanting to prove to his family he was going to the games as he usually watches from the locker room.
Unusual also as joining Rose injured were Richard Hamilton and Taj Gibson, as expected, but also Kirk Hinrich with a toe injury that revealed itself overnight, Nate Robinson with a rib injury that kept him sidelined late and the Bulls having to travel to Indianapolis Sunday morning after their charter experienced mechanical problems Saturday night and they had to borrow the Blackhawks’ plane for the flight to Indianapolis.
Though there was some confusion with the use of the plane as players asked if there’d be a shootout if they tied the game, eh?
So the Bulls came out in the crucial last seconds to try to steal a game against the Central Division rivals with their closers: Marco Belinelli, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Vladimir Radmanovic and Butler.
“We fought collectively and fought really hard,” said Noah, who had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “I think overall that a lot of guys stepped up. If we keep this mentality, there’s good things for us in the future.”
There just wasn’t enough this time, despite what coach Tom Thibodeau preaches, and the Bulls could not get that tying three and lost to the Indiana Pacers 97-92.
But it was a heck of an entertaining, if unexpected effort for the Bulls against the streaking Pacers on the second of a back to back with little used rookie Marquis Teague basically having to play the entire fourth quarter and having a brutal time of it in his hometown, and little used veterans like Radmanovic and Nazr Mohammed having to play crucial roles.
And the latter two did, especially in a spirited second quarter when the last guys on the bench saved the game for the starters. After the starters fell behind by 13 and ended the first trailing 32-31, Mohammed with his best game this season with seven points, four rebounds and two blocks in the quarter, and similarly for Radmanovic with three rebounds and two blocks and both with poster dunks, the Bulls got within 47-40 at halftime and turned a potential rout into a thrilling finish, even if it was a loss for the Bulls.
“It’s a huge win,” said Hill, who had 21 points against the backup guards to support David West with 31 points and driving out Carlos Boozer, who had just six points and two rebounds in about 17 minutes. “It’s someone who was the best in our division. They say to be the best you have to beat the best. Today we took that as a challenge to just go out there and play hard. That’s a great team over there no matter what injuries they’ve had. Coach (Tom) Thibodeau still has them playing well and they play defense well for a long period of time. We knew their defense was going to step up a notch. And when they tied it up (80-80 with 7:04 left) we just had to buckle down and play good team defense, also. We knew it was going to be a defensive game. It’s two great defensive teams going at it.”
It wasn’t exactly the Bulls at their best as they were outrebounded and trailed most of the game. But it did open the door for Thibodeau to use more of the veterans off the bench the way pros like Mohammed and Radmanovic, who have never complained and worked hard all season, played a significant role.
“We’ve got to get better,” said Deng, one of the technically not injured who took a hard fall on his bad left wrist and still keeps asking someone to answer the phone from the pounding in his head after serious dental work following a teeth jarring episode Thursday against the 76ers. “We fought really hard and gave ourselves a chance. We’ve been there many times before, but it’s tough. We just didn’t have it tonight. We always want to acknowledge the good things that we did but we need to find ways to win. The guys (off the bench) did a great job, especially in the second quarter. They kind of got it going for us.”
It was the most unlikely of rescues as it looked early like the Pacers would easily keep up their run that has them second in the Eastern Conference at 38-22 while the Bulls are tied for fourth with Brooklyn and Atlanta at 34-26. The Bulls also are getting ready for seven straight games against Western Conference teams, five of the next six on the road, before hosting the Pacers March 23 in the final game between the teams. The Pacers are now 3-0 over the Bulls this season and a combined 4-1 over Miami and New York, suggesting to them they are legitimate title contenders. I disagree, though they don’t seem to care, and they did look like it early in blowing out to that 32-21 lead after one.
What also was unusual was Indiana, 25th in the league in scoring just ahead of the 28th place Bulls, ran up a big scoring quarter running in the first. Clearly their plan was not to let the Bulls half court defense set and the Pacers shot 60 percent.
“Not good enough; came up short,” said Thibodeau. “We were flat (to start), they (bench) got us back into it in the second quarter. So we rode them. The game started and we didn’t play any defense.”
Both Boozer and Deng had slow shooting starts and though Noah had a nice facial dunk over Roy Hibbert on a sweet feed from Boozer, Nate Robinson could not handle Hill and the Pacers seemed in control against who they obviously view as the former division leaders.
“They’re always going to play extremely hard,” said Hibbert of the Bulls. “Noah is an All-Star and plays well. We knew they’d play hard to the end. But we have (the) closers out there who will finish up the game.”
For the Bulls, they had to get back into it as perhaps they were distracted early by all the TV cameras sitting in front of Rose for the ESPN broadcast.
“It was great,” Noah said of Rose being on the bench, though it’s nothing unusual for the players who have traveled with him for two months now.
Plus, it’s tougher to sneak out in Indianapolis for something to eat during the game because only the nearby Steak ‘n Shake is open.
“I know that it’s tough for him to be on the bench because I know how bad that he wants to play,” said Noah. “But it feels good to have him out there. It’s really good to have him on the bench and be a part of it.”
Rose, of course, remains day to day.
Though I know I shouldn’t joke about that one as no one seems to have a sense of humor when it comes to Rose.
So trailing by double digits, the starting backcourt out and two of the three front court guys playing through injuries and coming off 40-plus minutes games Saturday, here comes Radmanovic in his second first half appearance of the season, Butler, Marco Belinelli, who would also score 20 points, Teague and Noah to start the second quarter. And then less than two minutes in Noah left for Mohammed. That would be five players averaging a combined 20.8 points this season.
And they kicked some Pacers’ butt.
Well, not completely. But they stopped the Pacers’ momentum, slowed the game to the Bulls liking, and made a heck of lot of impressive plays.
Radmanovic started it with a block against Ian Mahinmi, and then one against Tyler Hansbrough, both within just over two minutes into the quarter, thus announcing his presence. The manic Hansbrough then ate a live chicken. You do not encroach on the space of Vladimir Radmanovic!
“It’s the NBA,” observed Thibodeau. “We’ve got plenty of players in that locker room to make plays and we just have to get the job done.”
Mohammed then had his best stretch of the season with a poster dunk on a pass from Teague, boxing out smartly on a Danny Granger miss for a rebound and then drawing an offensive foul against Mahinmi before tipping in a Belinelli miss after the Pacers had gotten the lead back to 10. Granger would leave after halftime with knee issues again. Radmanovic then ball faked and drove for a baseline dunk and Mohammed later in the quarter added a throwdown over Paul George for a three-point play that brought the Bulls within 47-40 at halftime. I’m bidding for the poster.
It was an inspiring effort with Noah up and leading the cheers from the bench as it seemed to awaken the regulars, as many as there were. Hinrich surprisingly after a third straight double figure scoring game Saturday came up with a foot problem overnight and was wearing a walking boot at the game. He is the usual day to day, though not likely out for long. It is the seventh injury he’s had this season. Actually, Rose looks healthier than most of the team, and much may be made of his latest cameo, though Thibodeau said nothing has changed.
He would let everyone know if it did. Gotcha!
Belinelli after a slow start got going with a pair of threes in the third among the team’s eight in the game. It was the Pacers, who lead the league in several defensive categories, who seemed worn out, not pursuing the Bulls through the multiple cuts and screens and failing to close on shooters. Plus, Noah did a terrific job fronting on the interior, forcing the Pacers to work the ball around the perimeter for lesser shots. After trailing by nine still late in the third quarter, Noah fired a fullcourt pass for a Belinelli layup, Noah found Belinelli in the corner for a three and Butler closed with another three and heading into the fourth the Bulls trailed just 69-66.
Deng then had the first of two driving dunks cutting off the weak side and getting passes from Noah, and the Bulls tied it at 72 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter on a Deng jumper.
But it was a trial under fire for Teague, and the kid wasn’t up to it yet as Hill abused him on screens scoring five straight points. It’s hardly Teague’s fault as he rarely has played and just turned 20. He’ll be a good player. The famed Indianapolis 500 race track is known as the brickyard, and you could say that about Tegaue’s shooting as the Pacers began to leave him and his shots were ricocheting off the backboard like they were crazy bounce balls.
The Bulls fought back again to tie at 80 with 7:04 left with another Butler three and some big time athletic moves on the inside. But with Boozer not producing, Thibodeau went with his smaller lineup with Deng at power forward, and he wasn’t enough for the powerful West, who pushed the Pacers back out front with four straight while Deng and Teague turnovers stopped the Bulls.
“He (West) leads our team in will,” said Pacers coach frank Vogel. “He has the will to do whatever is necessary to get the W. George Hill, every time we needed a bucket he got it.”
Oh, you’d sure love to have Rose if you were the Bulls against these Pacers. Or Hinrich. Or even Nate Robinson.
But there still was some great stuff to come in a fun, if unfulfilling for the Bulls, finish.
Teague launched another brick, but Butler grabbed it and dunked it back. Hibbert scored, but Belinelli answered with a three to keep the Bulls within 86-85 with 3:14 left. Belinelli threw the ball away and West scored again. But Deng answered with another driving, teeth rattling dunk. His and mine.
That got the Bulls within 90-87 with 2:31 left, and Belinelli redeemed himself swiping the ball from Hill. This would be perhaps the most amazing win of the season for the Bulls given all the bizarre circumstances. And it suddenly appeared possible when Belinelli knocked the ball away from Hill to Deng, who hit Belinelli full court and the Bulls were within 90-89 with 1:27 left. But Teague stumbled into Hill taking a shot for a pair of free throws, which Hill made. The Bulls then got stuck with the ball in a good Pacers’ defense sequence, which led to a 24-second shot clock violation and turnover.
Leading by three with 1:16 left, the Pacers went to West in a pick and roll. Deng tried to help Teague and West got by and missed. But Noah helping collided with Butler and fell and West went back up with the ball for a 94-89 Pacers lead with 32.2 seconds left.
The Bulls called time and got a quick Noah drive that missed. The Bulls fouled Hill with 25.6 seconds left, but he missed one of two and the Pacers still led 95-89. But the Bulls weren’t done. Noah screened off West trying to defend Butler, who made a three to bring the Bulls within 95-92 with 19.9 seconds left. The Pacers after a timeout got the ball to Hill, an 81 percent shooter who missed both with 13.6 seconds left.
So a chance to tie.
Belinelli inbounded to Noah on the same play Butler hit his three. Belinelli came left and Noah screened Hill. But falling left Belinelli’s three went wide. It bounced off a Pacer to give the Bulls another shot with seven seconds left. Deng was inbounding. But the Pacers covered well. Noah then broke out, but bobbled the pass and trying to hand back off to Deng the Pacers retrieved the ball to end it.
“We didn’t execute,” said Thibodeau, who angrily slammed the scorers table as the final play went awry. “It’s tough when we used our timeouts. We put shooters on the floor, but we just have to execute better. There were some good things out there. We had a lot of fight tonight. I thought Marco Belinelli was terrific and Nazr Mohammed was good and Luol Deng got going late. But again we have to do better. We have to do better.”
Though you had the feel this is one of the few rivalries going and perhaps there’ll be a playoff meeting that isn’t going to be easy or either side.
“I feel like it’s always tough to play against Indiana,” said Noah. “I’m really proud of the way we competed. We fought really hard and gave ourselves a chance.”