Despite a 3-1 series lead, the Pacers have at the very least chinked the armor of the the NBA's most confident team heading into the playoffs, and at worst, been the team on the floor when the Bulls' franchise player rolled his ankle at the most inopportune time.
Lucky for Carlos Boozer, Derrick Rose's ankle is the story heading into Game 5. What we can tell you is this: Rose had an x-ray and an MRI and both came back negative. After wearing a walking boot the day after Game 4, Rose wore sandals at the Berto Center Monday and reportedly had very little swelling in the ankle. And then there's the fact that Rose, while never seriously injured before in his career, has always bounced back quickly from bumps and bruises even when they looked bad at the time they happened.
Rose will likely take a pain-killing injection before the game and play with some discomfort, but not to the point that it drastically changes what the Bulls try to do. To give the scare of the season a small silver lining, Rose's injury does create a void that his teammates will need to fill. Especially on offense, the Bulls have been somewhat one-dimensional in this series, and that imbalance has led to a lot of Rose-watching.
It would be easy to use Boozer as a scapegoat for the team's offensive struggles this series, but it has been a team-wide malady. Ronnie Brewer's injured thumb has really hurt the Bulls. For all he does on defense as an on-the-ball defender, he's almost as missed on offense where he hunts the baseline as well as anyone. C.J. Watson has regressed somewhat under the spotlight of the playoffs, shooting 33% and averaging 1.5 turnovers in only 7.5 MPG. Taj Gibson is averaging 2.5 points in 15 MPG, well below his season average. This isn't so much to illustrate that these players are at fault, but to show that the team as a whole is struggling. Before we discuss Boozer, remember that as special as Rose is, his assists are down (6.3), his turnovers are up (4.25) and he is 5-29 on three-pointers for the series. Everyone is to blame.
Of course at the forefront of the blame list is everyone's favorite yeller, C-Booz. He has done a great many things to make Bulls' fans tear their hair out, but I hate to say that none of this should be surprising. This is who the man is and to lament his play is to wish for another player altogether. Boozer rebounds, plays terrible defense, and consistently scores (although to be fair he has been awful finishing at the basket in this series). Thing is, If he's not run off of pick and rolls or set up for easy shots, turnovers follow. Fans that expected different from Boozer forget that he had Deron Williams in Utah, arguably the league's best pure point guard after Chris Paul, delivering the ball where Boozer could score easily. Boozer is a finisher, not a playmaker, period. In Chicago's offense, Boozer is often isolated at the elbow or on the baseline, at which point I simply pray he rises up for a jumper. Because when the man is in motion with the ball in his hands, he is a walking turnover. It is up to Tom Thibodeau, Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng to put Boozer in a position to succeed on offense, and the more iso looks he gets the more I think the Bulls don't understand how best to use him.
As it pertains to Game 5, though, a great many things lean in Chicago's favor. First, with Rose less than 100% it is much more likely the Bulls' play a more team-centric game and "get the ball hopping" as Thibodeau likes to say. Second, the United Center will be absolutely bananas, as Chicago's excitement meets its nervousness in a game the Bulls simply need to have. The more rest Rose gets for the next series the better, and no one wants to go back to Conseco Fieldhouse to continue this grindhouse of a series. Finally, and discount this point if you must, having home court advantage means getting the balance of calls from NBA referees. With one of the NBA's best at drawing free throws playing on a bum wheel, it seems likely that the Bulls will be at the line early and often.
It is to the Pacers' credit that the Bulls have not been able to score an early KO in any game of this series. Coach Frank Vogel has schemed well, using bigger guards on Rose and employing traps at times. And his team clearly plays hard for him. Indiana would be mistaken to consider anyone else for its head coaching position.
As it is though, it is time for the Pacers' season to end. If the Bulls can finally hit a few outside shots and keep Roy Hibbert from showing up in two straight games, it should be enough to clinch a series that was much tougher than any prognosticator ever imagined.
Game 5 tips off at 7 p.m. CDT on CSN Chicago with national coverage on TNT.
For in-game updates and stats, follow Zachary Lee on Twitter: @rightfieldsucks