Pacers Make a Statement But Still Give Away Game 1

Game 1 was the perfect illustration of why it is much more valuable for a middling NBA team to make the playoffs than end the season on a losing note to move down a few spots in the lottery. The reality is that the #8 pick is nearly as likely to turn into a good rotation player as a #13 pick — something Tyler Hansbrough proved this afternoon. But playoff experience, finding out what it’s like when every player aside from Vince Carter is exerting maximum effort on every play, is invaluable.

Especially when the two teams kick off the NBA postseason with a display as fun as this.

The outcome wasn’t what the Pacers wanted. But no one outside of Frank Vogel actually expects this team to win the series so the process is more important than the final result. In terms of the young nucleus of this team building some confidence and a mental blueprint for success, it would be helpful for them to take a game or two from the Bulls. Ultimately, however, what matters more is whether or not the team comes away from its first trip to the playoffs in six years with some feeling that it can compete. In the press, the guys of course say that they think they can do just that right now, but they know who is on the roster in Boston and Los Angeles and who is on the roster in Indiana.

If you want to read the subtext of a Roy Hibbert quote after this afternoon’s 104-99 loss the way I do, the big fella essentially said as much: “There’s no way they’re going to sweep us.” He isn’t necessarily implying that the Pacers can’t win the series, but it reads to me as him insinuating that they plan to win a game or two.

Regardless, even in defeat, they took another step in the right direction today. The first step was making the playoffs. But this was something more. This was them showing the masses, on national TV, what a few of us saw a couple of times earlier this year when they beat the Heat and the Lakers in convincing fashion. Today, they landed some big punches on a heavyweight champ, leaving legs wobbly and eyes swollen. They lost the fight, but they made a statement to the world — and more importantly, themselves.

Moving past the platitudes and mixed metaphors of this whole intro, the Pacers simply played high-level offense today for most of the game. Even with two early airballs and a couple of other ugly jumpers from Danny Granger, the team put up 55 points in the first half, sparked by a 128.6 offensive efficiency in the opening quarter. Darren Collison led the way with 10 first-quarter points on 7 shots and went into halftime with a big 16 in his box score. That’s a big-time performance for a point guard in his first playoff game who only had 9 games this season with more than 20 points.

Unfortunately, he only finished the game with 17 points, due in part to him sitting for a curiously long, 7-and-a-half-minute stretch from 1:15 left in the third quarter until 5:40 remaining in the game. Maybe the offense still melts down if he gets back in earlier (they were outscored 16-1 in the final 3:38 … we’ll get to that), but maybe it doesn’t. Still, it stands to reason that the team should want its best point guard out there as much as his stamina allows as they try to shovel dirt on the best team in basketball’s Game 1 grave. And since he’s 24 years old, he probably wasn’t gassed.

That elephant-in-the-room, end-game futility we’ll be getting to also mars some great second-half performances by Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Granger. This was just an amazing game for the former Tar Heel star that even a lot of smart people who follow the NBA considered an association also-ran just three months ago. (That group may or may not include Jim O’Brien. And it may or may not include him for multiple reasons, according to some Pacers fans I know.)

Tyler was a mid-range assassin, brutalizing the Bulls in the pick-and-pop game and perhaps helping the rest of the league scout a chink in the armor of the league’s best defense. His 22 points on 19 shots and 4 rebounds were nice, but even they don’t really reflect his impact. Shooting and confidence can be contagious and it was his dead-on jumper, which he released time and time again without hesitation, that kept pushing the lead back up each time the Bulls scored on the other end. This was fitting since a lot of the Pacers late-season offensive success has been built on Tyler’s ability to do bury these shots. ‘Twas a microcosm, a person with a better vocabulary than I might try to say.

There was a very scary moment in the waning seconds of the third, however, when Hansbrough took a hard elbow to the temple from Kurt Thomas. Our lovable Buckaroo Banzai hit the deck, lying there motionless for way longer than you ever want to see someone lay motionless. He looked woozy when he did eventually sit up. Worse still, when he was walking back to the locker room, he couldn’t even make it the whole way, as his legs turned to noodles and he had to take a seat so as not to lose his balance.

Fortunately, he would soon return to the bench and, later, the game. So it would seem that there was no significant damage done, but you still have to cross your fingers considering that Hansbrough sat out most of his rookie season with vertigo-like symptoms that stemmed from what was originally diagnosed as an inner ear infection.

Furthermore on this “fortunately” vibe, he didn’t just come back, but he came back and just kept sticking jumpers. Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm explains.

When he got whacked in the head and went down, it was a legitimately scary moment (which didn’t stop the Bulls fans from booing like crazy). He went to the back, came back out, and KILLED Boozer. Killed him dead. Carlos Boozer is normally bad at defense. The “Bro made him look even worse.

Shame they didn’t win. I had a “WELCOME TO CHICABROUGH” headline all picked out and everything.

Granger was similarly accurate in the third, scoring the Pacers’ first 7 points out of half time to extend what was a 4-point advantage to a 7-point edge and getting his cocky, bobblehead-imitating persona going to help fire up himself and his teammates. (He finished with a team-high 24 points on 10-for-20 shooting … a 50% rate that looked highly improbable for him to reach after his woeful start to the game.) It was a crucial way to open the second act, since this was around the point where everyone in the world expected the Bulls to surge back and take the game over. It didn’t happen. Not for a some time anyway. (We’re getting to the bad part eventually … I promise.)

Every time the Bulls hit a big shot that would normally feel like a “here we go again … cue the collapse” moment to Pacers fans, Indy kept their composure and just answered with a bucket of their own or a few defensive stops. There was never a point where it seemed as though they were overwhelmed by the moment. They didn’t turn the ball over, finishing with only 10 on the night — a good number for any team but an excellent one for a team that is both this inexperienced in the postseason and averaged 14.8 turnovers a night in the regular season (good for fourth-worst in the league). They shot the lights out, hitting 10 of their 18 attempts from behind the arc.

Really, they seemed to be the only ones who were not shocked by what was going on.

In fact, if it wasn’t for a maddening inability to keep Chicago off of the offensive glass (they finished with a .500 offensive rebounding percentage, meaning they got half of those available … league average is .264), the Pacers may have been up by even more than 10 when Hansbrough stripped Carlos Boozer in the open court and raced the other way for a breakaway power dunk, plus the harm, with 3:38 to play

Now … OK … we’re here … the bad part: this and-one FT by Tyler was the second to last point the team would score. And the only reason they even got that final point was because Joakim Noah badly bailed out a terrible Pacers possession by fouling Hibbert as the shot clock was expiring. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie said it best: “Indiana outplayed Chicago for about 44 minutes of a 48-minute game.”

Up until that Hansbrough dunk, the Pacers had shot 51.3% for the game. Then they missed their final 8 shots in an ending that was eerily similar to the collapse they suffered in their loss to the Knicks in their penultimate regular season game. (In that one, they didn’t score a single point in the final 3:30, setting the stage for a back-breaking Carmelo Anthony game-winner.) Even worse than missing 8 straight shots was that they just couldn’t create any good looks. It was as if what everyone expected to happen at the start of the third quarter was simply delayed by 20 minutes. (Insert your own joke here about this happening in a building sponsored by United Airlines.)

Credit the Bulls for their defense, sure. They did heighten their intensity. And Rose soon started pouring it on on the other end, adding greater pressure for the Pacers to execute. But when you’re up 10 with less than four minutes to play, you need to win that game. I don’t really care what the other team does.

Here’s Granger’s take.

“We put forth a good effort, but who cares?” Granger said. “It’s 0-1.”

Instead, Indiana will have to look back at this one as the game that got away and hope they can put forth a similar effort against a no-longer-going-to-be-caught-off-guard Bulls team in Game 2. Before the series even started, Jeff Foster knew this moment was coming.

“We’re going to get punched in the mouth at some point. It’s a matter of how we respond to that,” Foster said. “That’s going to be key for us.”

The late-game heroics of Derrick Rose were indeed a punch. A stomach punch, Bill Simmons might even say. We’ll see how they can bounce back Monday. That might be the difference in whether they can, as Vogel believes, pull off a series upset or, as perhaps Hibbert and many Pacers fans simply hope, avoid getting swept by what we all know is simply a much superior team.

Some other stuff:

  • Derrick Rose aint right. For real. He was brilliant and dropped 39 despite missing all 9 of his three-point attempts (3 of which, as Dwyer noted, came at the end of the first three quarters). He got to the line 21 times, making 19. (This isn’t a fluke. He’ll keep getting there and making em. He started off the regular season shooting in the high-70% range from the line but has hit 383 of his last 433, i.e., 88.5% since December 18. Scary.) Ultimately, the Pacers — nay, even the Navy SEALS — have no answer for this guy. But we already knew this. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if he averages 45 per game. The Pacers held Boozer and Noah to a combined 9-for-23 shooting and that is half the reason they were in a position to win. Pacers fans can marvel at the wonder and awe of Rose. Everybody should. But when it comes to beating Chicago, just hope that Indy gets Derrick to mix in some contested jumpers along with his unstoppable forays into the paint while holding the rest of the team in check. And don’t leave Kyle Korver alone in the fourth quarter. That would be helpful. It’s not like doubling Rose is going to slow him down anyway.
  • A few people have questioned why rookie Paul George was trusted with the Rose assignment so long late in the game. Why not give Brandon Rush or Dahntay Jones, who never entered the game, a shot? I don’t know the answer to that but I find it hard to believe anyone else would have done much better. It’s worth re-visiting in Game 2, however. I generally feel that the more different looks you can throw at a superstar scoring, the better. You can’t stop them, but perhaps you can force them to have to continually adjust their approach a little and maybe that will disrupt their groove. Anyway, George did a pretty decent job in forcing Rose to take some jumpers so I’m not sure it would have mattered in this one.
  • Indiana lost the FT battle badly. Their FT/FGA was .131 for  vs. 317 for Bulls. League average, mind you, is .229. This is of course due in large part to the fact that Rose cannot be stopped by mortals. He also probably got a few calls. And, oh yeah, the Bulls had that one extra-free free throw courtesy of Joey Crawford T’ing up Vogel with just a few seconds left in the first half. They need to make this FT disparity narrower if they hope to continue being competitive. It would also help if they made more than 64.7% of their free throws.
  • Paul George, Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and Brandon Rush combined for 9 points in 57 minutes. That’s not even remotely getting it done. The Bulls only real weakness is their SG rotation. The Pacers need to exploit that and George in particularly needs to start putting some numbers on the board. He can start by staying out of foul trouble, something he gets into like clockwork of late.
  • From ESPN: “The Bulls outscored the Pacers by 13 points in the 4th quarter, continuing an ongoing trend from the regular season when they had easily the best 4th quarter scoring margin in the NBA. Fittingly the Pacers were -126 in the 4th quarter this season which ranked 28th in the NBA. Only the Raptors and Timberwolves were worse.”
  • I’m not going to say Roy Hibbert was offensively worthless but he wasn’t worthwhile. This wasn’t a huge deal on a night when the Pacers were hitting so many jumpers, but they will need a little more out of him to succeed in future games, I reckon.
  • AJ Price was OK off the bench, hitting a few key jumpers on his way to 8 points in 14 minutes. I thought he looked ready for the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a game in this series where he drops somewhere between 15 and 20 points.
  • Jeff Foster dished out a hard foul on Derrick Rose early in the game. It was the Official Playoffs Have Started, Guys moment of the NBA’s postseason. More than anything, it’s just nice that the Pacers could be involved in something like that. I wasn’t born yet, but I believe Jeff Foster started off the very first NBA playoffs the same way when he undercut Georg Mikan.

Tags: Carlos Boozer Chicago Bulls Danny Granger Derrick Rose Frank Vogel Game Recap Jeff Foster Joakim Noah Kyle Korver Pacers Vs. Bulls 2011 Playoffs Pacers Vs. Bulls 2011 Playoffs: Game 1 Roy Hibbert Tyler Hansbrough

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