For four games, the Chicago Bulls were out-physicalled, out-hustled, and largely outplayed by the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. They hadn’t led any of the games at the half, and without some late-game heroics from the likely MVP Derrick Rose and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, they Bulls could have just as easily been down 3-1 instead of up. Game 5 was a strong reminder of why the Chicago Bulls are the number one seed in the East. The Bulls jumped out to an early lead and kept the Indiana Pacers well at bay en route to an emphatic 116-89 victory to close out the series. Derrick Rose scored 25 to lead Chicago, showing no ill effects from the sprained ankle he suffered in game 4. Luol Deng was close behind with 24 and the Bulls finally cleaned up the turnovers, moved the ball well, and shot a high percentage from the field. They finally looked like the best team in the East.
The Bulls’ big night got going from the opening tip. After winning the jump ball, the first Chicago possession ended with an open 3 by Keith Bogans. Indy answered with a Collison floater to cut it to 3-2, and then the Bulls took off. After not leading by more than 7 points at any time in the first 4 games, the Bulls were up by 8 just two minutes into game 5. They wound up pushing the score to 14-2 with an 11-0 run that was really keyed by stout defense and phenomenal interior passing. Everyone was looking to make the extra pass and the Bulls did a great job of keeping the floor spaced and finding the guy with an open look. “Every game has a different story,” commented Deng, “and tonight it was how well we moved the ball, and I think that really started early in the first quarter.” It was a nice change for the Bulls to take charge early considering that the Pacers have really played great in the first and second quarters throughout the series. “We came out with a lot of intensity, a lot of fire,” explained Deng, “and it’s something we haven’t done. We really made it a point tonight to come out with a lot of intensity.” That fire got the Bulls off and running and they didn’t look back much. Chicago’s margin see-sawed a little bit for the rest of the first half, never getting larger than 14 or smaller than 7, but that’s pretty impressive considering that Boozer, Noah and Rose all had their minutes limited by foul trouble. In fact, Noah and Boozer played a combined 3:37 in the second quarter. The Bulls shot 63% in the first quarter and 46% for the half and went into the locker room with an 8 point advantage at the break.
The foul trouble of Derrick Rose began to catch up with the Bulls in the third quarter. Chicago came out hot again to open the third, pushing the lead to 13 quickly, but Rose picked up his 4th foul just 3 minutes into the half and had to go to the bench. With both D-Rose and Carlos Boozer watching from the sideline, the Bulls offense went into a little bit of a funk. They settled for some poor jump shots and watched the Pacers rattle off seven consecutive points to cut the lead all the way down to four mid-way through the quarter. It was time for the MVP to be just that. Tom Thibodeau called a timeout to settle the team down, and Rose begged his coach to put him back in. “I told him I wasn’t gonna foul anymore,” Rose said after the game. Coach Thibs listened, and it paid off. The first possession out of the timeout, Rose found Taj Gibson for an open 18-footer that opened the lead up to 6. After a Roy Hibbert travel, Rose came down on offense and fired off a 3 that caught the defense off guard, and it dropped. Rose kept the good times rolling with an improbable shot block of Hibbert, followed moments later by yet another triple. Indy called a timeout to try and stop the onslaught, but it wasn’t effective. Rose stripped the ball from Darren Collison on the next Pacer possession and got bear-hugged by Tyler Hansbrough to prevent a fast break dunk. He only hit one of the two foul shots, but the lead was already opened up to 13, and Indy’s season was quickly looking over. The Bulls hit 3 more triples the rest of the quarter (one more by Rose and 2 by Bogans) and closed the third with a flagrant-2 foul on Josh McRoberts that got him ejected and allowed Chicago to take a 19-point cushion into the final frame. It never got close again.
Rose and Deng were the top two scorers for the Bulls, but hardly the only contributors. Keith Bogans matched his regular season highs with 15 points on 5 three-pointers and Joakim Noah scored 14 points, grabbed 8 boards and blocked 4 shots while doing his best to fire up the crowd early in the game. Despite a great effort on Tuesday, it was the first time in the series Noah was held under 10 rebounds. Kyle Korver scored 13 points despite a rough shooting percentage night, and Taj Gibson chipped in 10 points and 7 boards. Luol Deng had the stat line of the night, however, with his with 6 boards, 7 assists and 3 steals to go along with his 24 points on 50% shooting. “You can’t say enough about Luol,” gushed Coach Thibs after the game. “You can put him in the book every night, you can count on him. He is the glue of the team. He keeps us together through everything. Defense, rebounding, passing, scoring, whatever you need.” Danny Granger paced the Pacers yet again, scoring 20 points and hitting 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Tyler Hansbrough put up a nice double-double with 14 points and 11 boards, but was just 3-for-9 from the floor. The rest of the Pacers had a relatively quiet night, but that’s because this night belonged to the Bulls.
The series victory is the first of Derrick Rose’s career and just the second playoff series victory for the Bulls franchise since Michael Jordan retired for the second (not the last) time. It was also Coach Tom Thibodeau’s first playoff series as a head coach, and he must feel pretty good about being 1-for-1. “It’s always good to advance,” commented the coach. “It doesn’t mean a lot to me as coach. I think it’s more important for our team.” Derrick Rose, despite not saying many words, didn’t downplay it quite as much as Thibs. “I’m speechless right now. I really can’t believe it,” remarked the young star. Bulls’ fans are hoping it is the first of many for this group of guys. One reporter even asked Rose if he was happy to have the first one under his belt so that he can have a whole bunch more. “Don’t jinx me like that,” joked Rose. One thing is for sure: if the Bulls continue to play with the kind of energy and intensity they displayed on Tuesday, it will translate to more big wins as the playoffs roll on. “I’m just glad we finally put a great game together,” mentioned Deng. “There were a lot of mistakes out there, but that was our best game. It really becomes contagious. Guys were hitting shots and we moved the ball really well.” This type of comfortable win is a great sign for the Bulls for two reasons: It allowed D-Rose to sit out the last few minutes of the game and not risk reinjuring his ankle, and it demonstrated that any playoff jitters this team had are a thing of the past. Those things both bode well for the Bulls’ immediate future.
Coach Thibs and his players didn’t waste any time after the win patting themselves on the back and celebrating. They know they can’t dwell on this win, and that they have to get back to work and clean some things up before the next series. “I think the teams that advance, the teams that perform well in the playoffs, are well balanced,” commented Coach Thibodeau. “It’s never like you get there, and, ‘ok, we’ve got it figured out.’ You have to constantly work on every aspect of the game.” More specifically, Coach Thibs elaborated and said he would like the team to take better care of the ball and rebound better defensively. Another major concern for the Bulls from the Indiana series was the play of Carlos Boozer. Carlos was in foul trouble regularly in the series, and while his rebounding numbers were pretty good, his scoring was not. Boozer averaged 17.5 points per game in the regular season, but in the playoffs he has only scored as much as 17 once in five games, and has been held under 5 points twice. Boozer is the highest paid player on the team, making nearly triple the salary that Derrick Rose makes, and many media members have bashed Carlos for being a shrinking violet in this series and not living up to his contract. His performance will have to get better to keep the Bulls rolling, but at least one Bull isn’t too worried about it. “Carlos is one of the best low-post scorers in this league,” boasted Luol Deng. “He rebounds the ball, gets teammates into it, always talking to the younger guys, so I’m not really worried about Carlos. Not at all, he’ll be fine.” Coach Thibs showed a little more concern, but feels like themain key is just finding ways to keep him out of foul trouble. “It’s hard to get in a rhythm when you are picking up two quick fouls like he is right now,” explained Thibodeau. I would hate to see Boozer be less aggressive if it will make him less effective, but it’s important for the team to have him out there to provide that post-up scoring option and keep defenses honest.
For Indiana, their valiant run at the Bulls came to a crashing halt on Tuesday night, but they have plenty to be proud of. They went toe-to-toe with the Bulls for 4 games, and if they could have closed those games out a little better, might have been able to advance past Chicago. “I’m very proud of our guys,” commented Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel. “They put Pacers’ basketball back on the map, and it’s here to stay. Our fans should be very, very proud of this team. It’s a team they can fall back in love with.” It was Indiana’s first trip to the postseason in 5 years, and despite the number 8 seed they garnered, the Pacers were a much better team than that down the stretch and in this series. Coach Vogel was a huge part of that. He is only an interim coach at the moment, but Indiana would be foolish not to retain him for next season. Tyler Hansbrough gave Vogel a convincing endorsement after the game: “I definitely like playing for him. He gave me a shot. He let me play basketball. One thing he did well is that we became a team under him. We gained an identity of being a tough and physical, scrappy team. That’s something we haven’t really developed in the past. We didn’t really have an identity, we weren’t necessarily a team.” This team really seemed to take on Vogel’s personality as the season wound down, and I think that is the type of guy you want in charge, a guy your players will fight for. The future looks very bright in Indianapolis. Danny Granger is the only starter over 25 years old, and Josh McRoberts, A.J. Price and Brandon Rush are key reserves who are all 25 or younger as well. They have a very strong, young core, and that core now has a little bit of playoff experience. I would be very surprised if Indy is sitting as low as the eighth spot again at the conclusion of next season.
The next step for the Chicago Bulls will be to take on the winner of the Orlando-Atlanta series. The Hawks currently lead 3 games to 2, but it’s a matchup where anything can happen. “You never know with that series,” quipped D-Rose. “They’re both talented teams. They’re playing well. It’s like a war between those two.” Each team would present a different challenge to the Bulls. If the Bulls draw Orlando, it’ll be about stopping man-child Dwight Howard around the rim, and finding ways to score in the paint despite his presence. I would look to see a little more Kurt Thomas at the 5 spot off the bench to try and pull Howard away from the rim on defense. If it is Atlanta who wins the series, the Bulls will have to play extremely hard to offset the Hawks length and athleticism. They have had struggles with teams similar to Atlanta, losing to Philly at home last month, and nearly losing to the Memphis Grizzlies at home as well. Joe Johnson is the key for the Hawks, but Al Horford and Josh Smith will make you work inside as well. The Bulls dominated the regular season series with Atlanta after collapsing late in their first meeting, but as Indiana just proved, playoff basketball is different.
The Chicago Bulls are one step closer to their goal, but the key to continuing the strong play from game 5 going forward will be to concentrate on the next step rather than looking at the big picture. That means one game at a time, not one series at a time. “All year long we focused on going step-by-step,” explained Thibodeau. “Once you start skipping steps and start looking at all the other stuff, that’s when you get lost.” The Bulls were able to get that focus back for game 5, and they looked as if they found themselves. The hesitation before taking open shots is gone. The uncertainty before making a tough pass has vanished. “We’re always striving for perfection,” claimed Boozer. “You’re never gonna achieve it, but we want to see how close we can get.” The Bulls were pretty close in game 5. I called this team a “sleeping giant” after game 2, and that giant is awake and ready to pillage the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks or anyone else these playoffs throw at them. As long as these Bulls follow the example of Bob Wiley and keep baby-stepping and doing the work every day, all those baby steps will leave an awesome path of destruction in their wake and result in a much needed championship for the Windy City.