The headlines will point to Derrick Rose's drive and layup with the game tied at 84 and 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter. They will espouse his leadership, his grittiness, his ability to make the big play with the game on the line.
But save for that hoop, which was ultimately the game-winner, the Bulls likely won Game 3 in Indiana in spite of the presumptive MVP. They were in fact his only two points in the second half.
Rose and Carlos Boozer combined for 6-28 shooting in a grind-it-out battle at Conseco Fieldhouse, which on most nights means the Bulls would walk away with the rare L. Boozer once again came up short when his team needed him most, missing two easy lay-ins in the first quarter before getting two fouls and sitting until late in the second quarter. Indeed it seems that Boozer's reputation for coming up small in the playoffs is well-earned, but it is no less infuriating to see a team play better once its 15 million dollar a year player is seated firmly on the bench.
But team leader Luol Deng and crunchtime sharpshooter Kyle Korver lifted the Bulls when they needed it most. Deng finished with 21 points, six assists and three rebounds, including 14 first-half points when no other Bull cracked double figures. Korver had 12 points on 5-6 shooting in only 19 minutes of floor time, including two huge three-pointers. He is now 7-8 from distance in the playoffs and has elevated his game at precisely the right time.
The series in now 3-0 in Chicago's favor, but could just as easily by 0-3. The main difference between the two teams is that Indiana lacks a late-game scoring option, as evidenced by Danny Granger's prayer three-pointer on the game's final possession, and the Bulls' combination of Closer Rose and lock-down defense in the game's final minutes.
If the Bulls manage to keep a game close, there is a sense that the late-game combination of Rose and D (D-Rose, get it? Okay I'm ashamed.) will always pull out the victory. For all the team's struggles in this series, and there have been many, when it has gotten to crunchtime, Chicago has shown its superiority.
It bears mentioning that against better competition, the Bulls will need to play their best for more than five minutes per contest. But take nothing away from these Pacers, who played their hearts out for the third straight game, only to have them broken for the third straight time. While Granger failed to hit his final shot, he was stellar throughout the contest, finishing with 21 points and four big fourth quarter buckets. The Pacers destroyed the Bulls on the interior, outscoring Chicago 38-16., and received their fair share of home cooking from the referees (which, to be fair, the Bulls benefited from at the United Center).
Joakim Noah keyed the Bulls' defensive effort with a signature double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds, to go with four blocks. Chicago held the Pacers to 38% shooting and only 11 assists on 84 points. The Bulls did struggle on the glass in the second half, a first for this series, as they were out-rebounded 27-20, but overall coach Thibodeau had to be pleased with his team's defensive performance.
It has been a new struggle in every game of this series, first with poor defensive rotations in Game 1, then turnovers in Game 2, and surprisingly, rebounding tonight. And make no mistake, the Bulls offense has a serious case of the hiccups that must be ironed out if they are to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs.
But Chicago has something that the rest of the league fears, that makes the Bulls contenders when similar teams wouldn't be: There isn't a team in the league with a better finishing kick than this one. When Derrick Rose has the ball in his hands, Deng and Korver on the wings, and Noah working the offensive glass, the Bulls can get points when they need them late. And good luck to the team that tries to break through Thibs' defensive five of Rose, Brewer, Noah, Taj and Deng. The Pacers had a shot to win or tie tonight and they barely got the ball to the three-point line.
No matter the manner in which it was done, the Bulls have a commanding 3-0 lead in their first round series and a chance to earn some much-needed healing and practice time if they can close out the Pacers on the road Saturday. Ugly or not, Chicago is winning games as it is supposed to and growing up along the way. Hard to ask for much more from a young team just beginning to understand what it might take to be a champion.