The stage was set for a huge Central Division clash at the United Center on Monday night. The Bulls entered the game with the best record in the NBA, and the Pacers were sitting in second in the division and third in the east. Both teams were in the midst of impressive 6-game winning streaks and had a little bad blood between them to fuel the fire even more. The Bulls were a little irked at the way the Pacers celebrated on their home floor after the teams squared off on January 25th and have had this date circled on the calendar ever since. About the only thing that could have heightened the atmosphere would have been to play ELO’s “Showdown” over the stadium P.A. system just before tip-off (just the song, no need for Big Ern’ McCracken’s comb-over). For the first 24 minutes of action, the game lived up to the hype and the Pacers went into the locker room with a hard fought one point lead. After the break, the scales tilted and the Bulls jumped all over Indy in a monster 3rd quarter to roll to a 20-point victory.
Luol Deng led the Bulls with 20 points on a night where most of the team struggled from the field. Derrick Rose had a quiet night with 13 points and 9 assists, but he came up huge in the 3rd with 11 of his points and 5 of his assists coming in the pivotal frame. Joakim Noah continued his recent strong play with 9 points and 17 rebounds while Taj Gibson notched 10 points and 9 boards off the bench. For Indiana, most of the scoring punch came from the two Georges, George Hill and Paul George, who scored 17 and 21 respectively to combine for 38 of Indy’s 72 points. The stat that really stood out in this one was the rebounding battle. Chicago out-rebounded the Pacers by a 60-32 margin that bordered on the ridiculous. Indiana averages the third most rebounds per game in the league, but they were dominated on the glass in this one.
Despite the lopsided final score, this was a very tight game throughout the first half. The Bulls came out of the gate shooting very poorly. They shot 39 percent as a team for the first half, but their top 3 scorers for the season (Rose, Boozer and Deng) were a combined 3-for-21 at the intermission with 11 total points between them. To make matters worse, they were plagued by turnovers in the early going and lost starter Richard Hamilton to yet another injury just a minute and a half into the game. Somehow they were still able to set the tone of the game with their physical defense and rebounding keep Indy from getting out to a lead. The Pacers were limited to just 3 offensive boards in the first half just one night after the Philadelphia 76ers grabbed 18 in a game against these Bulls. “Give credit to the Bulls,” said Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel after the game. “They won all the hustle stats tonight, won all the loose balls, and obviously kicked our butts on the glass.” While all of that hustle kept the Bulls in the game for two quarters, it was an offensive explosion in the third that put the Pacers away.
The reigning MVP finally put his stamp on this game coming out of the break. D-Rose assisted on the first 4 field goals Chicago scored in the second half as the team turned a deficit into a 3-point lead, and then he started to score some himself. He knocked down his first 3 pointer of the game on the fast break off of a Pacer miss, then dropped in a 12-foot floater on the next Chicago possession and another triple moments later to open the Bulls’ lead to 7. After a couple of misses by each team, it was Luol Deng’s turn to try his hand from the outside. Deng drained 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to push the lead to 13, and Rose added one more from downtown before the quarter was over to put Indy in a hole they wouldn’t dig out of. The Pacers started to make a push late in the game against the Bulls’ reserves and got back to within 13 with a few minutes to go, but Thibodeau went back to Deng and Noah to ice the game, and even had D-Rose stretching just in case. “He was warming up in the bullpen,” joked Thibs afterward. One thing coach Thibodeau didn’t joke about is just how the Bulls pulled off the impressive win. “We struggled offensively in the first half. In the third quarter, we had great energy and imposed our will. The rebounding is what got us over the hump. When things are not going your way and you are not shooting well, you have to find other ways to win.”
The catalyst of the great rebounding effort for Chicago had to be Joakim Noah. Noah was flying around the court like a man possessed and has been doing so with regularity for Chicago. Joakim has averaged almost 11 points and 14 rebounds a game over his past six contests, and started that run with a triple-double against the Bucks back on February 22nd. “He should have been an All-Star,” commented Carlos Boozer after Monday’s game. “He’s knocking on 20 rebounds every game. He’s blocking everybody’s shot. He’s always got that incredible energy. Jo’s playing awesome.” According to the Chicago head coach, it was just a matter of getting his timing down. “At the beginning of the season, he was getting to a lot of balls but he was bobbling,” claimed Thibs. “Now he’s snatching his rebounds with two hands, he’s range rebounding, and his conditioning is great.” Hopefully Joakim can keep up his strong play on the glass for the rest of the season, because the one thing that is lacking on the Miami Heat is an inside presence. Jo’s superior rebounding ability can cause fits for the Heat come playoff time, just as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol did in a Laker win over Miami on Sunday afternoon.
As great as the Bulls’ performance was on Monday night, there was one glaring negative to take from the game. Rip Hamilton is hurt. Again. This will be the third different injury that will cause Rip to miss time this season. First it was a pulled left groin that was suffered just 4 games into the season and cost Rip 10 games. Just 3 games after his return from that ailment, a right thigh injury sidelined him again for another 13 games. This time it took a whole 5 games to see Hamilton suffer a new injury. He collided with a defender just over a minute into the ball game, and left the action with a shoulder injury. There is still no word yet on the severity of the injury, but as brittle as Hamilton seems to be, it’s likely the Bulls won’t rush him back. That means that Ronnie Brewer will be back to the starting lineup, which is just fine for the Bulls. “It doesn’t take him [Ronnie] 5 minutes to get into the flow of a game,” explained Thibodeau. “He can start instantaneously. If you start him, he’s fine. If you bring him off the bench, he’s fine. He just plays.”
Indiana dropped to the number 5 spot in the Eastern Conference standings for now, but there is plenty of time left to change that. This is a young team that has come a long way in a really short time. They are much improved from last season with the additions of George Hill and David West and another year of playing together for everyone else. They will be a handful in the playoffs and really might be playing beyond the first round. If the first two meetings were any indication, a series between the Bulls and Pacers would be intense, just as it was last season. This is blossoming into a very entertaining rivalry. It isn’t quite at the Michael Jordan vs. Reggie Miller level yet, but these teams are both young and will be battling each other for years. The Bulls got their revenge on Monday, but that just means it’s the Pacers’ turn to do some circling on the calendar. The Bulls visit Indianapolis on April 25th for the season’s rubber match, and you can bet it will be explosive.
I assure you the Bulls aren’t looking quite that far ahead. It’s always been the mantra of Tom Thibodeau to take things one game at a time. The Bulls remain excited about this team and what it can do, but they won’t get ahead of themselves. The focus is on Milwaukee, who Chicago visits Wednesday. The Bucks are fighting to try to get back in the playoff conversation, and the Bulls know it would be unwise to overlook them. The Bucks are desperate and desperate teams are dangerous. It’s true that one win over Milwaukee won’t directly help the Bulls with their long term goal of winning a championship, but beating the Bucks is part a plan and routine that has served the Bulls pretty well over the past season and a half. “We just talk about getting better,” asserted Boozer. “That’s our motto. Get better today.” If the Bulls make good on that motto and improve a little bit every day, the Miami Heat will have their hands full in June. Get the ELO ready.