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If this seems inexplicably frustrating to watch, just remember how easily and how often the Bulls won during the regular season. Not to defend Chicago's second straight sub-par performance at home, as on most nights 20 turnovers and 39% shooting equates to a loss, but perhaps we have been spoiled a bit by this team.
The playoffs are another animal altogether and this young team is still trying to understand how to be the favorite. The Pacers have nothing to lose, and their loose, inspired play has put the Bulls on their heels two straight games.
Tonight, it was the Bulls offense that was, well, offensive. Chicago made a concerted effort to involve Carlos Boozer early and often, and indeed he did play better, finishing with 17 points and 16 rebounds. But overall the Bulls were careless with the ball, including the infallible Derrick Rose who had five turnovers in the third quarter alone.
Ultimately Rose, who finished with 36 points, six assists and eight rebounds, did just enough to get the Bulls over the hump. After shooting just over 50% at the free throw line in the first half, Chicago hit their last 16 freebies in the second half. That, in addition to an insane rebounding advantage of 57-33 ultimately earned the Bulls a Game 2 victory.
Luol Deng came through with the two clinching free throws at game's end, something he couldn't be counted on to make until this year. Deng had 14 points, six rebounds and held Pacers number one option Danny Granger to 19 points and two rebounds.
The Bulls bench unit as we knew it is seemingly over and done with as Thibs has shortened his rotation for the playoffs, playing Boozer 42 minutes while Gibson and Asik combined for only 14. Chicago has struggled to score without Derrick Rose in the game, and with Brewer nursing an injured thumb, Asik's minutes nearly cut entirely and Kyle Korver moving into the late-game crunchtime lineup, there really isn't a bench mob to speak of anymore.
It has been interesting to see Thibs' strategic decisions come to light (and to be fair they may change if and when the Bulls move past the Pacers), as Kurt Thomas and Korver have taken on a much more prominent role. For the second straight contest Korver hit a crucial three-pointer for the Bulls in the game's final possessions. The NBA leader in fourth quarter/overtime 3-pointers this season is one of the few Bulls besides Rose who wants the ball with the game on the line. Expect better defensive teams to try and take him away in the games to come, at which point Deng, Boozer or Noah will need to be take, and make shots.
The Pacers must be crestfallen tonight knowing they largely outplayed the Bulls for two games in Chicago and find themselves down 0-2 in the series. Point guard Darren Collison, who exited in the second quarter with a twisted ankle, is day-to-day and represents a huge potential loss for Indiana. Tyler Hansbrough came back to earth with a 2-12 shooting performance, the only other Pacer in double-digits besides Granger was replacement point guard A.J. Price, who also had five turnovers.
Unquestionably, the Bulls defensive effort stifled the Pacers offense, and as the Bulls owned the glass, second chance points were nowhere to be found. Now the Bulls must iron out the kinks on offense before Game 3 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday.
The games in Indianapolis should be fascinating, as the pressure of an expectant home crowd on top of sky-high expectations appeared to affect the Bulls in the series' first two games. Will they loosen up and band together in an us-against-the-world environment? With a hostile crowd (and the swing in foul calls that will accompany it) on the way, the Bulls must return to the form that resulted in 62 regular season wins. And if they don't? See you at the United Center for Game 5.
No doubt Thibodeau focused non-stop on defense after Game 1, because his team has brought in on that end of the floor and completely lost their way on offense.
The Bulls finished the first half shooting 35% from the floor, 65% from the line and a whopping 10 turnovers. Shooting comes and goes, but the turnovers are an issue of focus. To the Pacers credit, they have been incredibly active on defense and have forced the issue on nearly every possession. They are playing with nothing to lose and the Bulls still haven’t matched their effort on both ends.
Carlos Boozer was the focal point of the offense in the first two quarters, finishing with 13 points and 9 rebounds. Noah was active on both ends and looked like the energetic player the Bulls have come to depend on. Rose had 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists after sitting early with 2 fouls. He still has not been able to connect from the outside, with his shot looking flatter than usual.
The biggest development so far is that Indiana point guard Darren Collison sprained his ankle while falling over a photographer under the basket. His return has been listed as questionable and if he is unable to return the Pacers are going to need a huge effort from second year backup point guard A.J. Price.
The Bulls need to iron out their offensive spacing and ultimately, get some shots to fall. They are in the game because they are destroying the Pacers on the glass, 30-17. If they can begin to execute more consistently on offense, keeping turnovers to a minimum, the Bulls fortune will change in the second half.
For live tweets and updates, follow Zachary Lee on Twitter: @rightfieldsucks
In previewing Game 2, what would probably be most fun would be to relive the last 3:29 of game one and the Derrick Rose-fueled 16-1 run that allowed the Bulls to steal it. But since this article's goal is prognostication, the 45 minutes where the Bulls were largely outplayed must be examined just as closely.
The Pacers offense, when shots are falling, is flat-out dangerous. Their spacing Saturday was some of the best I've seen this year, and although Darren Collison has been inconsistent initiating the Pacers offense in his first year on the team, he was impressive in his playoff debut as a starter. Danny Granger is a flat-out professional, and Tyler Hansbrough's energy gave the Bulls fits inside all afternoon.
All that said, the Pacers put forth one of their best efforts of the year on a day when their shots were falling. The knock on Indiana is that their effort wanes when the iron is unkind. As we witnessed in the games final minutes, which were understandably brutal for an underdog on the road against a player who took his game into the stratosphere, the Pacers offense bogged down when the jumpers stopped going in. Without a crunch time answer to stop the massive swing in momentum from the Bulls, the Pacers simply wilted.
After the game, to absolutely no one's surprise, Tom Thibodeau had a lot to say about the Bulls defensive effort. Chicago didn't come out flat, but they didn't match Indiana's energy, which resulted in slow rotations, poor recovery on pick and rolls and most of all, bad close-outs on shots.
When the Bulls eventually did lock down on D, it was Joakim Noah's defensive energy and length that keyed the effort. As good as the season has gone for Chicago in his absence, it's easy to forget how much Noah means to the Bulls for the energy he provides. And while I hate it when writers lean on "energy" to describe a "gritty" player's value, with Noah it is almost quantifiable. He is the Bulls best two-way defender, able to guard on the perimeter and enforce in the paint. As Thibodeau has said, Chicago will need Noah at his best if they are to compete for a championship. With the long layoffs between games and only 30 minutes played on Saturday, nothing would be better for the Bulls than a classic 12-point, 14-rebound, 2-block Noah performance.
Rose scored an absolutely brilliant 39 points on Saturday, which is crazy considering he went 0-9 from distance. He was simply unstoppable off the dribble, scoring at will and hitting 19-21 from the free throw line. But going forward he will need to involve his teammates more, especially inside with Carlos Boozer and Noah. The Bulls struggled to score when he wasn't in the game Saturday, and as the team's floor leader and point guard he will need to work harder to keep the offense balanced. You saw just how effective that could be during the game's final minutes when, between his own drives to the hoop, he found Noah streaking down the lane for a dunk and then Korver for what was ultimately the game-winning shot.
Last but not least, Boozer must play well for the Bulls to ultimately succeed. And while it is up to Boozer to step up his game, Thibodeau needs to scheme plays to get Booz involved early, and his teammates need to deliver the ball where he is most comfortable. The Bulls will need his scoring and rebounding before this ride is over.
At the risk of looking silly on Tuesday, I expect Monday night's game to go in the Bulls' favor rather easily. The Pacers hit an inordinate number of jumpshots beyond 15 feet Saturday, something they'll be hard-pressed to repeat two games in a row on the road. Thibodeau has made adjustments as well as anyone in the league all year (look at the Bulls' success in 3rd quarters for evidence), and he will have a plan to keep the Pacers from a second straight night of getting to virtually any spot they wanted on the floor.
Finally, can the Bulls never, ever play another noon playoff game please? There's little more embarrassing than needing a mid-day nap after the adrenaline wore off from that crazy win.
Game 2 begins at 8:30 CDT Monday night at the United Center. CSN Chicago has the call, with national coverage also on TNT.