The Chicago Bulls were expected to showcase some playoff jitters during the team's first postseason game following a league-best 62-win season, but few pegged the upstart Indiana Pacers to develop a double-digit lead with just under four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Many pegged MVP candidate Derrick Rose to come through in the clutch for Chicago, though, and that's exactly what All-Star guard did down the stretch for a Bulls team that seemed to gather confidence as the game went along.
Indiana roared out full of confidence, taking advantage of a sluggish Bulls team working through a noon local time start to Game 1. With all the pressure on Chicago, the 37-win Pacers were allowed to fling bombs at will, over-commit defensively on Rose, and let the Bulls own up to all those championship plaudits. The Bulls just couldn't seem to break through against a Pacer team that was shooting way over its head. Indiana made 35 percent of its threes during the regular season, just under the league's average, but Frank Vogel's crew hit 10 of 18 during Game 1, a sizzling 55 percent.
All praise due to the hot hands, but Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau was succinct in his appraisal following the win, pointing out that Chicago "didn't get it done [defensively] until the end of the game." Though the Pacers had good looks, there was just something to Danny Granger's hot hand, A.J. Price's two three-point makes, and Tyler Hansbrough's unending touch that didn't seem long for Game 1.
So, caught in an unlikely shootout between the 23rd-ranked offense and the NBA's top rated defense, Chicago relied on its likely star to do the most damage.
Rose was brilliant on his way toward 39 points. Though by his own admission he "didn't hit a long range shot all game," the Chicago native made up for his 0-8 mark from behind the three-point arc (including three long misses at the end of the first three quarters) by hitting 19 of 21 free throws.
Frustrated Pacer coach Frank Vogel was impressed with Rose, but he wasn't exactly happy with Chicago's point guard going to the line four more times than the entire Pacer team.
Rose is "impossible to take a charge on," Vogel pointed out, before going on to add that there "should be a no-call" every time his players meet the Bulls All-Star in the air without hacking. "I looked at his 39 points," Vogel said while glancing over the post-game box score, "and I am shocked." Then again, what did Vogel predict would happen with a player he described as having "Allen Iverson's quickness, Jason Kidd's vision, [Chauncey] Billups' shooting touch and Michael Jordan's athleticism?"
Danny Granger was less fawning, in a way. Rose is "like a crazy stalker ex-girlfriend. Every time you tell her you don't want to talk to her, she shows up at your door again." So there's that. Anything you'd like to discuss with us, Danny?
Rose's final two and a half minutes featured seven points, two rebounds and two assists (one for an open three, one for a three-point play), all with the derring-do and TV-ready execution that has made him a must-watch player since entering the league in 2008. With rookie forward Paul George curiously guarding him over the final three minutes, Rose was able to turn the corner consistently, moving into empty spaces that had previously been filled up by the moving feet of Pacers center Roy Hibbert.
And even after getting to the line 21 times, Rose looked fresh as, well, a Rose following the game.
When asked if the Pacers' playoff fouls were a step up from the usual hacks and bumps he took in during the regular season, Rose was dismissive. The fouls were "hard, but not that hard. I knew they would be physical but I still tried to get to the basket."
Aiding Rose along his way to a playoff career-high was Luol Deng, who came through with a needed double-double, ending his afternoon with 18 points, 10 rebounds (five offensive), while finishing off several broken Chicago plays. Though Deng had his issues chasing Danny Granger (who led Indiana with 24 points) around the court, his surprisingly-poor defensive effectiveness shored up as the game moved along. The same couldn't be said for Carlos Boozer, who was one of several Bulls that allowed Tyler Hansbrough to notch 22 points in his NBA playoff debut, including six deep two-point jumpers.
Indiana just couldn't sustain the shooting. The Bulls had allowed teams to shoot over 50 percent just 10 times in the regular season, and the Pacers managed just 38 percent from the field in four games against Chicago during the regular season (losing three times). And though the Pacers entered the fourth quarter shooting just under 51 percent, something had to give. Indiana managed just 35 percent from the field as the Bulls hounded them in the fourth, pulling in just three offensive rebounds (two coming in a fruitless final 10 seconds as Josh McRoberts was stuffed twice at the rim by Joakim Noah).
It was a startling peek into the two biggest elements behind Chicago's just-as-startling 62-20 regular season run. Lights-out defense, punctuated by stunningly effective play from Rose.
And, typically, followed by a taciturn, focused post-game setting that sees both Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ("This one is done. We have to learn from it, make our corrections and get ready for the next game. For us, what we got to do is go step by step. The next step is Monday's practice"), and Rose eschewing all manner of soap opera-y narrative. Though Rose did loosen up long enough to admit that "life is pretty good" as the Bulls enter the playoffs with the league's best record.
For Indiana, life has to be pretty frightening. They came at Chicago with a desperate, pell-mell attack, making shots they usually don't make, and watching as Chicago missed shots they usually put in. And even though Indiana outplayed Chicago for about 44 minutes of a 48-minute game, they're still staring at a 0-1 advantage before Game 2's Tuesday tipoff.
Chicago? As it's been all year, they're looking toward their coach and top player as they point toward the team's next practice. And we wonder where they get it from.