The sub-.500 Pacers once threw everything they had at the Bulls. And the outcome was once again a game in which the underdog outplayed the favorite for more minutes than they didn’t, only to come away empty-handed. There aren’t supposed to be moral victories in professional sports. If you didn’t win, you lost. But that’s not actually true for a team traveling down the path to relevancy, on which the gray areas in between the numbers in the win/loss column ultimately mean more than the team’s record.
In that sense, Indiana has done more to galvanize their supporters in 96 minutes of postseason hoops in 2011 than they had in the previous five years. Let’s be clear: tonight the Bulls again played badly. For them, very badly. Indy didn’t come out and wow the basketball world with stellar play
But the Pacers were able to stick with the Bulls on a night that they faced some serious rotation adversity in losing their starting point guard (Darren Collison badly sprained his ankle late in the second quarter and missed the whole second half) not to mention the fact they didn’t even shoot well themselves.
In Game 2, the Pacers positives started with Paul George.
At 6’8″ he used his length and quickness to provide near-constant pressure on the smaller, quicker Rose. The soon-to-be MVP scored 35 points and it only took him 25 shots to do so, but you would be hard pressed to find another night in the Bulls current streak of 25 wins in their past 27 games during which he was better defended. George used a bend-don’t-break positional attack to keep Rose in front of him and goaded the point guard into several long jumpers early. Not only did George give him the daylight to entice him into attempting the distant shots that the Pacers wanted him to take, but the rookie also contested very well.
It would be difficult to convince people who only see the box score that Rose was stifled at times, but he was legitimately bothered as George routinely back-pedaled while forcing Derrick to use counter-moves to his counter-moves in order to advance into the paint. Rose has that ability. He’s just that good. The kid has one of the deepest arsenals in the league. But between Paul doing admirable work one-on-one and the Pacers adopting a trap-the-dribbler strategy in the third, they forced multiple turnovers from an all-world player who did not always make all-world decisions.
In the fourth, when the Bulls really started to impress their basketball superiority on the game, Chicago started running a lot of high pick-and-rolls that freed up their floor general to be guarded by a wing player without two first names. When Granger, who switched over on most of these possessions, squared up, the difference was night and day. Derrick must have felt like he was in an empty gym by comparison, even though Danny really didn’t do anything fundamentally egregious. Granger just simply doesn’t have the foot-speed, the experience defending guys with such quickness and, probably, the ability to remain focused enough on such a meticulous defensive assignment to impede Rose. The extra 12 inches of space this gave Rose on his pull-back jumper and the extra split-second it gave him to make decisions as he penetrated transformed him into guy who couldn’t be stopped. Free from the pressure of George, he certainly looked much more comfortable and confident.
That’s how the game was finished. Again, in the waning minutes, the individual brilliance of Derrick Rose was simply too much for the Pacers. It was Game 1 all over again. But the opportunity for the Pacers to lose in exactly the same manner for the second straight game was set up by the hole they put themselves in through their inability to keep Chicago off of the offensive glass.
In Game 1, the Bulls grabbed 50% of the available boards on their offensive end of the floor. Tonight, it was no better as they out-muscled Indiana to get 45.5% of those available. Over 8 quarters of professional basketball, that’s simply embarrassing. And it’s something that would be very difficult to overcome for any team — let alone one facing a talent gap of this magnitude.
In Indiana’s defense, some of this is collateral damage of their strategy. Being out of place to finish the possession with a rebound is a byproduct of the wild rotations every member of the team — and particularly the bigs — were making to try to, as a unit, keep Derrick Rose from getting to the rim. When he beat his man off the dribble, the front court players had to step up. And even if their presence forces him, or the guy to who he passes, to miss his initial shot, the other Bulls are now in a better position to grab the board.
Still, this can’t be an excuse. At some point, you need to be able to rotate, bother the shot and then retreat to mind the glass. And you can tell by the chaotic recovery seen throughout the first two games that Indy’s bigs just aren’t able to get that job done. Every missed shot shouldn’t feel like such an emergency, and Hibbert, Hansbrough and McRoberts shouldn’t be barely getting back into position, only to get half a hand on the ball and bat it around until a more-composed Bulls players can grab it and put a shot back up at the rim.
These 20 offensive boards are why the Bulls could still feel so in control of the game throughout the second half despite only shooting 38.6% for the game and while turning the ball over 21 times. In the third quarter alone, Chicago out-rebounded the Pacers 16-7, getting as many offensive rebounds in those 12 minutes (7) as Pacers did total rebounds.
Because other than that, the Bulls didn’t play very well in the third, let alone the first half. They won the quarter 23-20, sure, but Chicago had a miserable 7-for-21 shooting and 7-turnover performance in the period. Essentially, the Bulls were bad but the Pacers were simply worse, allowing all those rebounds and turning the ball over enough that Chicago’s bad performance didn’t even matter. With the help of a miracle 70-footer from TJ Ford at the buzzer, the Pacers were somehow only out-scored by 3. For the Bulls, this would be something to worry about. I’m not sure how many other teams in the conference would lose this quarter. A Finals team should be running Indiana out of the building there, but instead Derrick Rose continually turned the ball over himself and Chicago left itself vulnerable to an upset.
But that earlier game stuff — let’s also throw in Hansbrough’s atrocious 2-for-12 shooting and Hibbert’s virutal no-show — will always be marginalized compared to what happens in the closing minutes. Rose can have a terrible third quarter and make up for it later. Especially since, in crunch time, the Pacers weren’t good at all either. They didn’t get stops and they couldn’t manufacture good offense. Like in Game 1, they had nothing to turn to that would work when the Bulls were defensively set in the half court.
That’s what this league is about. Scoring when you have to score and getting stops when you need stops in the fourth quarter — something the Pacers have been increasingly unable to do as these games have gone on. In the post-game press conference, the team captain adeptly summed up the cause of their woes, particularly against this Bulls team. “Even when we won in Indy [in March in the regular season] we gave up all the points in the fourth quarter,” said Granger. “Our defensive execution really breaks down when the game’s on the line.”
Perhaps these are the things that teams and players learn in the post-season.
And while the inability to stop the Bulls in crunch time is troublesome, the offensive possessions late in these two games have often felt even more futile. There is seemingly a sense of impending doom in these final possessions during which the young Pacers team realize the jig is up and that the jump-shots and in-the-flow-of-the-game buckets that materialized in the second quarter will no longer appear. They realize the have to create scoring opportunities and they can’t. And perhaps worse still, they know they can’t, leading to scattered decision-making and erratic execution.
Presumably, late-game situations will become more comfortable when they head back to Conseco Fieldhouse. They still won’t be equipped with any lessons learned from past success, but the trial-and-error approach each player appears to be engaged in won’t also be wrapped in the added pressures of playing in hostile confines.
I suppose we will see on Thursday.
But regardless of whether the Bulls can execute their offense better in Game 3, the Pacers have already competed well enough in the first two games to take away a lot from these losses. The gray area in between the black-and-white world of victory and defeat has shown us a lot about how these guys might be able to play in the future. And it has shown the fans at home that this team might actually have a future worth paying attention to after all.
Some other Game 2 stuff:
- Coach Vogel had some encouraging thoughts on both his rookie’s defense and the team: “Paul George set a record for our team with 18 deflections. [He also had] 4 blocks, 3 steals. He’s a rookie. He’s a gifted defender. Very, very proud of his effort tonight. We’re standing toe-to-toe with this team. I’m proud of our guys. We’ll take it back to Indy, see what happens.”
- You can’t really say enough about the “expiring contract” veterans of this team. TJ Ford has played a total of 22 minutes since January and was still able to come in and provide, even if only a few, productive minutes — not to mention the highlight of the night with a 70-foot buzzer-beater to end the third quarter. Mike Dunleavy hit a few huge shots. He probably shouldn’t have taken that long three out of a timeout with the Pacers down 4 and 17 seconds remaining. He probably should have gone to option two after catching the ball so far out (something that may well have been the result of McRoberts flashing too far out on the perimeter before getting the ball back to MDJ). But if was one of only two shots he missed. And Jeff Foster also did all the Jeff Foster things we have come to expect. He also should have gotten a key loose ball foul call in his favor when Boozer shoved him to the floor that would have given the Pacers the ball back for a key possession in the final minute.
- Hansbrough was a big letdown. It would have been near-impossible for Tyler to top his Game 1 outburst, but not only did he shoot 2-for-12, he didn’t even look good doing it. He didn’t impact the game on the glass either, grabbing just 6 in 40 minutes. By contrast, McRoberts had 6 of his own in less than 17 minutes off the bench.
- When it comes to letdowns, it was hard not to list Hibbert first. The most memorable moment of the night for him was the highly questionable offensive foul call with one minute remaining … but he walked prior to that iffy call anyway so it’s not like the refs wiped out a play on which no infraction occurred. The no-call moments later on the Foster/Boozer rebound is the one Pacers fans should be more upset about. More troubling when it comes to Roy’s performance this post-season, consider these numbers: Hibbert had 8 points and 5 rebounds in the 1st quarter of Saturday’s game. He has had 11 points and 7 rebounds in the seven quarters since then. And tonight he was -16 tonight in only 21 minutes. That is, to put it kindly, not helpful.
- Darren Collison was good-not-great until he went down after spraining his ankle on a camera person’s foot late in the first half. I still have idea why the NBA doesn’t move those people back just a few feet. AJ Price had a bi-polar performance in which he turned the ball over a lot (5 times) but also hit a few big shots (his 13 points made him the only guy other than Granger in double-figures). As Mike Wells pointed out, “the Pacers have turned the ball 7 of their last 13 possessions since Collison went out.” That’s not good. On the other hand, he could have done even better scoring-wise since was also fouled routinely on his three-point attempts by Derrick Rose. There were three such instances, but the refs only whistled the final one with 23 seconds to play. AJ stepped up big and knocked down all three shots. Good on him.
- Granger was the best Pacer tonight after Paul George, scoring 19 on 14 shots. He got to the line 6 times, which was nice. He also disappeared for long stretches, botched a lot of his ball-handling attempts and generally muffed up a lot of possessions with dribbling that got him nowhere and/or poor shot selection. Typical Granger stuff. Good and the bad.
- Brandon Rush allegedly played nearly 14 minutes. I did see him make a three. Nothing else occurred. (OK … he played Rose well on a few possession.)
- For Chicago, Boozer was a problem and definitely put a lot of pressure on Indiana early. Aside from him and Rose, who had 35 points, the rest of the Bulls starters shot 6-for-28. That’s 21.4%. Korver hit another back-breaking three, which just made this game eerily deja vu-laden that it already did based upon Rose being unreal and the offensive rebounding woes. As Granger said after the game, “I feel like it’s like the sequel to the Derrick Rose show. It really just happened all over again.” It sure did. And for different reasons, that is both a good and a bad thing. Bad cause … well, you know. And good because it means that these Pacers can at least hang with these Bulls on a night they don’t shoot extraordinarily well.