The Bulls finally put together a complete game and the result was an impressive 116-89 blowout of the Indiana Pacers, ending the series 4-1 in what some have termed a "gentleman's sweep" (let them win one). For all the theories out there, at the end of the day the Bulls struggled early in this series because they could not get shots to fall. But when the lid came off, the floodgates opened. The Bulls set a new franchise record with 14 made three-pointers, and shot 45% from distance and 48% overall. It was the type of basketball we've gotten so used to seeing this year: 27 assists on the night, a few appearances from the Bench Mob, and a certain soon-to-be MVP who wasn't going to give the Pacers a moment's breath.
After leading by double-digits for nearly the entire game, Derrick Rose picked up his fourth foul with 9:03 left in the third quarter. The Pacers took advantage and cut the lead to four in less than three minutes, and once again it looked like they just wouldn't go away.
Rose got up, told Thibodeau he wouldn't foul anymore, and his coach put him back in the game. What happened next is what makes him the league's MVP and what I wish every stat-head (who have valid arguments, to be certain) would sit down and watch before they violently shook their heads no: Rose assists to Taj Gibson for two, Rose hits a 3, Rose blocks 7'2" Roy Hibbert's layup, Rose hits another 3, Rose steals the ball from Darren Collison and is fouled at the other end. In 1:56, Rose pushed the Bulls' lead back to 13 and effectively ended the game and the series. It is the kind of thing he has done all season, stopping opponents' runs, extending leads, making the big basket when his team needs it most. Rose collected his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter and his teammates took care of the rest. Rose finished with 25 points, six assists, two rebounds, two steals and two blocks, and his injured ankle that had the city hold its collective breath was never a factor.
I would be remiss not to mention team "glue guy" Luol Deng, who does whatever the team needs to win and really is the wise elder statesman of this young team. Sure, Kurt Thomas is 38 and has seen everything in this league, but Deng is the one who leads out on the court, whose actions speak louder than words, who lays his body on the line night in, night out. Deng scored 26 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals, and held the always-dangerous Danny Granger to a 7-16 shooting night. Chicago would be lost without Lu, evidenced by the fact that he played 41 minutes while hardly any other Bull played more than 30.
And then there's the Bulls' third-best player, Joakim Noah, who is back to his usual "grimy" self, getting under everyone's skin, scrapping for boards and firing up the crowd like an emcee. Noah is the ultimate Hate-to-play-against him, Love-him-on-your-team guy. With his grandfather watching him play for the first time as a professional, Noah sprinted out of the gates, scoring 10 points, to go with three boards and three assists in the first quarter before sitting with a pair of fouls. I cannot remember the last time I saw him so amped, and while he got T'd up early on for being a bit much even for the refs, his energy was infectious and absolutely got in the head of the Pacers' players. By the fourth quarter, Josh McRoberts snapped and took a wild sissy-punch at Noah earning him an immediate ejection. Even Granger, a consummate professional, came to the Bulls' bench at game's end to share a few choice words with Noah.
The game couldn't have gone better for Chicago, as even the bench mob made a productive appearance, but there is one sore spot that cannot be ignored. Carlos Boozer somehow managed to come up even shorter than he had in the previous four games in this series, finishing with two points, five rebounds and four fouls in 15 minutes (glass half full: no turnovers!). Boozer was simply dreadful in this entire series, and I recommend he stay away from the AM radio band while driving around Chicago the next few days. Credit goes to Thibodeau, who had every opportunity to call out his player publicly but chose instead to protect him, saying that foul trouble kept Boozer from establishing a rhythm. To top it off, reports are emerging that Boozer suffered a turf toe injury at some point during the game, which makes you wonder if he was doing wind sprints in the tunnel during halftime, because there certainly weren't many opportunities out on the floor. Mark my words: if the Bulls are going to go far in these playoffs, they will need Boozer before it is all said and done. It is imperative that his coaches and teammates help find a way to get him off the snide.
It was a much harder series than some might have imagined it would be, but ultimately a great test for this young team as they move on to the second round to face the winner of the Orlando-Atlanta series. Both teams play markedly worse defense (save for Dwight Howard) and may actually prove to be an easier matchup than the Pacers, who had the worst regular season record of any playoff team. Such is the nature of matchups, as the Bulls discovered two years ago when they took the Boston Celtics to Game 7 despite being a far inferior team.
The team gets a day off before returning to practice, and looks to be relatively healthy (barring any new Boozer news) going into the next round. It wasn't perfect, but survive and advance is the name of the game, and these Bulls are on their way to the second round for the first time since the 2006 season, and for the first time ever for core players Rose and Noah.