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Luol Deng got mad, Derrick Rose got busy, and Joakim Noah finished it off with a block party. The Bulls' three homegrown stars showed up when it mattered most Saturday, leading their team on a 16-1 game-ending run to cap off an amazing comeback against the Indiana Pacers at the United Center.
For 43 minutes, the Bulls were largely outplayed by the Pacers, who brought the kind of energy and shot-making that helped them beat some of the league's elite during the regular season, including one of Chicago's two losses in its last 24 games. The Bulls' defense started off slowly and when it did rotate properly, the Pacers were canning shots, to the tune of 50% shooting in the first half. Give Indiana credit, as they were all kinds of perky and extended their lead every time the Bulls pulled within a couple of baskets. Danny Granger played well in the third quarter, but it was Tyler Hansbrough who outplayed Carlos Boozer and had Indiana within minutes of a stunning road upset.
Yet as someone who has watched nearly every game this season, I can tell you I didn't actually get worried until Boozer's idiot foul on a Hansbrough breakaway with 3:38 left that stretched the Pacers lead to 10. Up to that point, I knew that Derrick Rose was waiting in the bullpen (ooh, new Bulls' wordplay!) for his patented MVP-closer stint, which frankly defies description at this point. But as the Bulls kept shooting themselves in the foot and the Pacers hitting key baskets, I'll admit I let doubt creep in.
But that is when one of the cooler moment of the season took place, when with five minutes left Deng inexplicably took exception to the 374,384th foul on Rose, shoved Hansbrough in the chest and promptly earned himself a technical foul. It was without question the most demonstrative play of Luol Deng's seven-year career, and while it was not a good time to give up a free point to Indiana, frankly the Bulls needed that kick in the pants. Deng, who has had his toughness questioned multiple times over his career, took it upon himself to lead his team and to protect Rose, whom the Pacers clobbered for 48 minutes. Watching a furious Deng inciting the crowd as he got back on defense was almost as enjoyable as Rose's game-ending unleashing.
Although Boozer tried to ruin it with his fourth turnover and subsequent hack on the Hansbrough dunk, the momentum switched after the Deng episode. The defense finally cranked it up to a fever pitch and Derrick Rose morphed into closer mode, and that is when the Chicago Bulls are their absolute deadliest.
What happened next was the stuff of legend: a 16-1 run over the 3:29 of the game, with Rose assisting or scoring on 12 of the points. He finished with 39 points, including 19-21 from the free throw line as he got into the painted area seemingly at will. A patented Noah double-offensive-board-and-tip-in began the run, and a double rejection of Josh McRoberts emphatically ended it, with Noah getting so fired up after the play that I thought he might pop a blood vessel.
Underneath the euphoria of a win that probably shouldn't have been is the, I'm sorry to say, putrid performance of Boozer. Already with a reputation for coming up small in the postseason, Boozer's tired act of careening to the basket without a purpose while yelling and begging for fouls was the opposite of what the Bulls paid 15mm a year for. It seems increasingly clear that while Boozer remains an important part of the Bulls offense as its inside offensive threat, he cannot be counted on to make the big plays for this team, especially in the biggest moments. I would love to be proven wrong on this, preferably as soon as game two.
As it is, Rose's performance (while going 0-9 from behind the arc) adds yet another brilliant chapter to his growing legend. With Deng and a rejuvenated Noah behind him, who knows how far the Bulls can go?
Game 2 at the United Center tips off on Monday night at 8:30 CDT.
For updates, links and musings, follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks
To be fair, this has been the busiest week personally in many a day, so while I have watched the river of previews and analyses go by, it is only six hours before the tip of game one that I can actually think about it. The upshot is, there's a lot of great stuff out there to sift through, saving me hours of work:
Blog-a-Bull, the beating pulse of Bulldom, has a solid aggregate of pretty much every playoff primer out there, which I am now re-aggregating, which is what I think Joakim Noah did to his ankle last week in New York. There is also a great Q&A with SB Nation's resident Pacers blog, Indy Cornrows.
Or if you prefer, there are Jack Ramsey-matchup style looks at it, or color-coded statistics, or even video breakdowns. I say check them all out not only because they're fantastically-done, but also because there isn't a stone left unturned. Thus I'll keep my thoughts general on the eve of the playoffs and dive into the nitty-gritty, as it were, as the series progresses.
The smart money seems to be on an early series victory for the Bulls, mostly because the only thing the Pacers consistently bring to the table is inconsistency. As Chicago found out in one of their two losses over their last 24 games, when Indy is hitting shots and playing their best, they can beat really good teams. And so as I began mentally scoring at least one win for Indiana, I remembered what Derrick Rose has done after any perceived slight this year. The dude kicks donkeys and takes monikers. And it just so happens that Indiana beat the Bulls in their own house last time out. I promise you Rose has not forgotten.
For that reason and a few others, I'll go out on a limb and call the sweep.
1. As I said, Indy can be quite good, but Rose is a nightmare matchup that will ultimately scuttle the Pacers. Point guard Darren Collison is simply overmatched, so Indiana will apparently use Dahntay Jones to try and rough Rose up, but that's only if he can stay in front of him. Not that many teams do, but Indiana definitely does not have an iso defender that can match up with the soon-to-be MVP. That rhymed. I'll give the credit to Rose. Granger is Indiana's best player and Deng is better. The only player I fear is Tyler Hansbrough, but more because of him moshing around in the same lane as Noah's injured ankle than the 20 and 10 he might put up. One of the Pacers' strengths, a deep rotation, is A) a hindrance in the postseason and B) still overmatched by the Bulls' depth.
2. As long ago as even last year's playoffs seem, it's easy to forget that the 22 year-old star has shone brighter in his biggest games nearly every single time. His playoff debut was for 36 points and 11 assists, for cripes' sake. There was the night of the Thibodeau motivation speech, which resulted in a then career-high 42 at the UC against the Spurs when they were still healthy, or any of the three Miami victories, or his efficient crushing of Boston last week, just to name a few. More than any player I've seen, probably since Kobe, Rose seems to be at his best when the pressure is cooking.
3. A motivated Rose is a dangerous Rose, and his slights list is much longer than usual. First was the loss to Indiana at home, but then Danny Granger was silly enough to say he'd prefer to play the Bulls than the Celtics. That might not seem that bad to you and I, but Rose is the same guy who absolutely put it down on the Raptors after they had the gaul to celebrate a win over the Bulls after their last meeting. And honestly, how dare they celebrate one of their best wins of the season. Top it off with his seeming self-perception of non-accomplishment for not having advanced out of the first round of the Playoffs, and I would not be surprised if Rose actually caught fire on the court at some point in this series.
There are a few things to monitor for the Bulls. Noah's ankle (and knee?) health, and the rebounding that comes with it. Ronnie Brewer's thumb, which is we-don't-know-how-badly sprained. Boozer's ailing shooting touch and the fact that he doesn''t play with his back to the basket nearly enough. Moreover, the continued (non?) development of Noah and Boozer on the floor together.
It's likely that none of these things threaten the Bulls' series chances, but they remain the most pertinent news items if you need something to worry about. I, for one, don't. After winning a championship with Boston and coaching in the NBA for 20+ years, it would be unwise to think of Thibodeau as a rookie head coach. He is well aware of what it takes to win and how a team can get beat if it isn't ready, and you can bet he has told his players all about it.
Finally, I think it important to refute the "Bulls lack playoff experience argument" in particular because it simply isn't true. Sure, Rose is young, but he's also the presumptive MVP so let's move on. Deng has seen the second round before, Boozer has been deep in the playoffs almost every year (even if he does have a soft postseason rep), as do Korver and Brewer from their shared Utah runs and Kurt Thomas may have actually been around for the invention of the playoffs. If you had to point to any player being a little light in the britches, it would have to be Taj Gibson, and even he has tasted the NBA's second season.
No, if the Bulls are to struggle at all it will be on the defensive end, which did desert them for the odd half in February and March. But with Playoff Rose, Mad Scientist Thibs and a team that has looked prepared to win nearly every time it takes the floor, it's most likely the Bulls arrive in Indianapolis up 2-0. No doubt the Pacers will make that game three "playoff underdog in that first home game" push, but if the Bulls hang around long enough for Rose to does his Mariano Rivera act, then game four would probably be a formality. And I'm not betting against Rivera. Bulls win in four.
Game One of the NBA playoffs begin at a completely-appropriate high noon CDT Saturday. ESPN has the call.