When it came down to needing a bucket, Derrick Rose did what he does best and got to the rack. Just before that, the Pacers went to what they do best when they need a score: nothing.
That was the story of crunch time in a game they lost 88-84.
The Pacers have no reliable offense. In Game 1, the pick-and-pop with Tyler Hansbrough abusing Carlos Boozer’s lack of defensive acumen worked. But that’s not sustainable nor has it been a bread-and-butter play for Indiana to go to when they need a score. It has been effective at times, as we saw earlier in the regular season when he was recording back-to-back career highs against the Knicks, but it’s not a reliable option. At least not when the defense is keyed in it isn’t, something this franchise has seen somewhat over the first 82 games in recent years, but never to this degree, in a playoff setting, in five seasons.
Danny Granger is an excellent scorer throughout a game. And we saw tonight that when he can get separation — on occasion, something he can manufacture by himself — he is a big time shooter. He was stellar throughout the fourth quarter and did enough to keep his team in a position to win. In the regular season, much like he did tonight, he hits the shots that he should make. But he never has been, nor will he ever be, a guy you can give the ball to and say “score.” He is gritty, confident and willing. He is a cocky guy who will never doubt his ability to be a top-line scorer in this league. Making something happen when there is nothing there, however, is simply not his forte as a basketball player. He does many very-good things on offense, but that is just not one of them. And that’s OK.
But for this team, one that has no reliable post game and no reliable penetrators and no reliable offensive sets when points are their most difficult to find, Granger is going to take the rap for not getting a better shot on that final Pacers set. I’m sure he’s fine with this. It’s his team and he, therefore, should and will take a lot of the blame for not being something he isn’t.
But this team played high-level defense in a lose throughout most of the 48 minutes played tonight. They again hung with a better team. They just simply, again, fell victim to their own fatal flaws — as well as a series of back-breaking buckets from Bulls MVP (tonight) Luol Deng and Kyle Korver.
Deng, who scored 21 while playing nearly the whole game, hit several huge shots in all quarters, one of which that was particularly deflating as the shot clock was waning while the Pacers played good D for 23 seconds. And Korver was, again, the X-factor. He hit 5 of the 6 shots he took. His threes exhilarated the Bulls offense, sure, but most evident of how good a game this historically great shooter just had was the possession during which AJ Price closed out well to challenge a shot he had behind the line, and he simply faked the three, dribbled in and hit a banker from 10 feet. That’s poise. That’s control. That’s winning basketball.
The story of Game 3 is going to come down to Rose’s Hall of Fame-level drive on the Bulls’ last significant offensive possession. And I guess that’s fine. He stared down Dahntay Jones, who played very good basketball tonight, and didn’t settle for anything the Pacers wanted him to do, instead getting all the way to the hoop for a lay-up. It was his 4th field goal of the evening, and two of this others were tough threes that the Pacers were happy to let him shoot. Good on him for making those two tough looks and way-uber-good on him for doing what he does best in winning time.
But it wasn’t Derrick Rose that beat Indiana tonight.
What beat them was their own inability to create good offense when it matters. What beat them was a superior team that through the gutsy, unwavering will of its superior player — and I don’t just mean on the court in this game, I mean perhaps superior to any other player in the NBA right now — made a play just seconds after the Pacers proved unable to do so.
Going back to earlier in the game rather than focusing on the final minute, however, Indiana competed very well. They even played well at times while doing this.
They did a lot of what they needed to do defensively in the first half, for example. Deng and Rose hit some big threes that buoyed the Bulls shooting percentage and point total, but they trapped Derrick effectively in the pick-and-roll and, most importantly, kept Chicago off of the offensive glass — finally. They only gave up 4 offensive boards on 19 missed shots. Chicago still managed to get a 9-0 edge on second chance points, which means they did convert their opportunities, but they did have fewer chances than they had been averaging by a large margin. Indiana also forced 12 turnovers, which was huge and helped them get a 10-3 advantage in transition points, including 6-0 in the second quarter.
They were also aggressive on both ends, forcing the refs to make calls, many of which went in their favor. All four of the Bulls starters who deserve to be NBA starters (you know who you are, Keith Bogans) finished the half with 2 fouls. This only translated to 7 Indy free throw attempts in the opening half, as both the calls against Rose and multiple others were offensive fouls on Chicago, but it set a tone in which the Pacers stayed physical. And Deng picked up his third early in the third while trying to prevent George from putting down a highlight dunk on the break.
What I’m trying to get at here is that Indiana did not play the type of timid, jump-shooting game that we have seen so often throughout the past six months. Anyone who saw the fouls handed out by, and general presence of, veterans Jeff Foster and Dahntay Jones can attest to this. Even the somewhat-hobbled Darren Collison was not backing down by any means. Tyler and Danny never relented. Josh McRoberts had an excellent first half. Paul George appeared to relish the challenge of guarding Derrick Rose and applied pressure all night.
It’s just that none of this was enough on a night when several Bulls players kept making the plays necessary to stay in control of the game. That’s unfortunate, but not unexpected.
Ultimately, once again, in the midst of what is, and always was, probably an un-winnable series in terms of talent, Game 3 showed shades of what Pacers fans should be excited about in the years to come. The Bulls as a cohesive team are so far beyond where the Pacers are right now that talking about the clutch stuff, the times when good teams loaded with talent truly separate themselves from those middling squads with some guts, isn’t all that relevant here.
Derrick did what no one on the Pacer is able to do. Granger isn’t capable of that stuff. And everyone else on this roster is so incapable of it that mentioning them by name isn’t even necessary.
But for the third straight game, the Pacers had a chance to win late. This despite everything mentioned (and all the best efforts Roy Hibbert made during his his 24 minutes to prevent this from happening, it must be documented).
And that’s something almost no one on this planet, including the guy typing this sentence, thought was possible. That seems like something Indiana — and its fans — can hold their heads high about.