Indiana's strategy has been predicated on playing physical, specifically towards Derrick Rose. The result has been three grinding, mostly boring games, kind of like a boxing match without the punches. There was a time in Game 3 where I just wanted to fast-forward to the last five minutes to see how it ended. Ugly or not, the grabbing, checking and occasional elbow have allowed the less-talented Pacers chances to win each of the series' first three games.
On Friday, the NBA announced it was upgrading Pacers' center Jeff Foster's two hard fouls, one on Luol Deng and the other an elbow to Rose's face, to flagrant-1's.
Foster will not be suspended, but the subject of goon-ish play has become the focus of this series going into Game 4. When Foster hit Deng and later Rose, Bulls' broadcasters Stacey King and Scottie Pippen called for retaliation from the team, with Pippen going so far as to visit the locker room after the game, apparently to deliver his message. Kyle Korver responded in an interview with ESPN 1000's Waddle and Silvy that he appreciated Pippen's passion, but that the game has changed.
"I agree with everything he is saying but we can't just go out there and hammer somebody. You watch the highlights of the old days and guys getting their heads taken off and fights or whatever. If you do that now you're suspended three or four games, you're fined incredible amounts of money. The league has really cut down on that stuff."
Certainly the Bulls aren't going to tolerate anything egregious, and there's always a chance that team enforcer Kurt Thomas throws a few in-game elbows Saturday just to let Foster know that his actions didn't go unnoticed. Not gonna lie, I wouldn't be mad if he did. But the truth is, the Pacers have played hard playoff basketball within the rules of the game. Thibodeau's team knows that the best way to fight back is to send Indiana fishing.
Carlos Boozer has seen some tough text in these pages, and while his four-point, three-turnover, two-blocks allowed performance on Thursday did little to change that stance, perhaps some of the criticism was unfair. Superstar that Derrick Rose is, his skills as a passer pale in comparison to Boozer's former teammate Deron Williams, specifically in running the pick and roll. Boozer's shooting percentage as the roll man is down almost 14% from last year with the Jazz.
Rose does not yet have that innate sense of where to deliver the ball so Boozer can score. That's a chemistry thing, but it's the soon-to-be MVP's struggle just as much as it is Boozer's. For all the things he does at an elite level, Rose's ability to involve his teammates and deliver the ball where they like it is something to improve. One look at his career improvement in three-point percentage or free throw percentage has to make you think he'll get better. After all, as good as they are, It's sometimes easy to forget that Rose is only 22, these Bulls have only played together for one season, and in Rose and Boozer's case much less because of injury.
Noah, on the other hand, is starting to look like his old self, which has resulted in not only better defense, but offense as well. He even unleashed a tornado from the elbow in Game 3, the first I can remember since he hurt his thumb. Noah's length and activity fixes a lot of defensive mistakes, including a crucial defensive stop with the game tied at 84 that set up Rose's game winning drive on the following possession. He and Deng are the cornerstones of the Chicago defense.
The Pacers have used rookie Paul George and veteran reserve Dahntay Jones to guard Derrick Rose with increasing success as the series has gone on. Rose shot 43% in Game 1 and 2, and only 22% in Game 3. The Pacers mix of half-court traps and swarming on drives have given other teams a blueprint to guard Rose, although not every team has a pair of athletic perimeter defenders as Indiana does.
As the Pacers swapped George onto Rose and hid Darren Collison on either Keith Bogans or Ronnie Brewer, Thibodeau countered by using Kyle Korver at shooting guard. As chronicled by SI's Zach Lowe, the strategy has been a masterstroke of in-series adjustment by Thibs, as Korver has been free to shoot over the smaller Collison, making the Pacers pay for the defensive switch. As noted after Game 3, Korver is 5-6 from 3 for the series, and after hitting the key basket in both Games 1 and 2, his presence on the floor at the end of Thursday's game created the driving lane for Rose's game-winning layup.
At this point both teams' strategies are out in the open, and Game 4 will be more about execution than adjustments. The Bulls will try to play inside out and make the Pacers look beyond Danny Granger and Collison. The Pacers will try to contain Rose with length and by knocking him around when he comes in the lane. With the Magic and Hawks headed for an long series, the Bulls could steal a few extra days rest and say goodbye to a pesky, but worthy opponent.
Tip-off at Conseco Fieldhouse is at 1:30 CDT on CSN Chicago, and also nationally on TNT.