If Saturday's Game 1 was an unlikely shootout between two teams that often struggle offensively, Monday night's second opening-round contest between the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers struck closer to the hearts of these two plucky outfits. The shots weren't falling, but the hustle was present throughout as the Bulls prevailed 96-90. Both teams contested shots that were left open in Game 1, both teams became acutely aware of the other squad's playbook during Sunday's practice and both squads played each other to a hilt defensively.
And though Chicago is still a very young team, Indiana's inexperience showed down the stretch. With every possession counting double in a tight playoff game, the Pacers improvised and ran strange isolation sets for rookie Paul George while needlessly double-teaming or calling out strange switches defensively. Though the Bulls weren't the prettiest outfit as they pulled away, the group had enough in the tank with Derrick Rose finishing with a fantastic 36-point, eight-rebound line (it was, according to Danny Granger following Game 2, "the sequel to The Derrick Rose Show."), and Kyle Korver hitting yet another huge 3-pointer down the stretch of a playoff game.
It was the second straight game that saw the Pacers stalk the Bulls down to the wire, an extension of the team's 20-18 finish to the regular season, a record that saw the Pacers win over the Bulls in overtime on March 18, Chicago's lone in-division loss of the season. Indiana hung in there despite a first quarter ankle sprain suffered by Darren Collison, who did not return. Working in Collison's absence, second-year guard A.J. Price and veteran T.J. Ford steadied an initials-heavy attack that produced 18 points and two assists in 33 minutes of play.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel wasn't surprised by his team's resiliency in Collison's absence, pointing out that his team doesn't "usually skip a beat too much" when someone goes down, despite Ford playing in just his fourth game since Jan. 17. Indiana's real issues were up front, because while the Pacers kept the Bulls to 38.6 percent shooting on the night, Chicago was able to secure an offensive rebound on 45 percent of its misses. That's an astonishing number for the Bulls -- and a damning one for Indiana's frontline.
Chicago didn't help its own cause by coughing up a turnover on nearly 22 percent of its possessions, a statistic that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau attributed initially to the Pacers' active defense, before letting on that he thought his team was spending too much time "holding onto the ball," while playing "too much one-on-one" ball and tossing too many "risky passes." Just another batch of constructive criticism from the coach who has presided over 64 wins in his first 84 tries as an NBA head coach.
After the game, Rose was just as dour, soberly reflecting on Chicago's relative struggles while pointing out that the Bulls have to improve, "especially on the defensive end." Though the Bulls held Indiana to just 94 points per 100 possessions (101 per 100 was the lowest average mark in the NBA during 2010-11), Rose stressed that his teammates "aren't talking, though that can easily be fixed."
What isn't as malleable is the outfit's bench play. Indiana's bench at the very least matched Chicago for the second straight game, continuing a trend that has carried over from the regular season. Though Pacer big man Josh McRoberts was nearly shooting his team out of the game on the offensive end and missing rotations on the defensive end, Jeff Foster (nine points and four boards) gave his team 18 strong minutes, while Price and Ford combined to more than make up for what Collison usually gives the team offensively.
And though Rose got his 36 points, rookie Paul George was the biggest reason behind Rose's 11-of-25 shooting mark and six turnovers. The 6-foot-8 forward is an unlikely choice to take on the lightning-fast Bulls point man, but he more than held his own, and Vogel praised the youngster following the game for setting what the coach (with no apparent tongue placed firmly in cheek) called "a team-record with 18 deflections." Three of those deflections turned into steals for George, who also blocked four shots on his way to an otherwise unremarkable offensive turn.
After shooting his way to a 22-point playoff debut on Saturday, Pacers second-year big man Tyler Hansbrough was a little less refined on his way to a 2-of-12 shooting mark from the floor in Game 2. He still managed a few good looks, but the Bulls clearly made his face-up game a priority on defense. And despite Roy Hibbert's size advantage over Bulls center Joakim Noah, the Pacers rarely went to their up-and-down big man. He attempted just seven shots in 35 foul-plagued minutes, turning the ball over four times, including a pivotal offensive foul call with a minute to go.
The biggest issue here moving forward is Chicago's sluggish play. The team made its hay in the regular season by going hard just about every night, taking advantage of opponents that were often going through the motions during the dregs of an 82-game season. Nobody drinks the dregs during the postseason, though, and Chicago's effort alone won't give the team the typical 10-point advantages its used to. The team can talk defense all it wants when the cameras are rolling, but this is a team that needs to find its way offensively.
Scoring has rarely been the strong suit for the NBA's 11th-ranked offense, and the Pacers can get after it defensively. But the Bulls will be no match for the rest of the Eastern bracket if they don't start to convert good looks. Luol Deng and Noah have combined to average 35 percent shooting through two games in this series, and these are mostly close shots around the rim that aren't dropping down for Chicago's lengthy defensive-minded duo. At some point, the chippies have to fall.
And the Pacers have to feel good heading home. The team is just a month removed from taking the Bulls down during the regular season, and with a rowdy home-court advantage on its side, inconsistent scorers like Danny Granger (19 rather anonymous points on Monday) and Hibbert can find the touch and confidence to try and move a step beyond just showing up to make life rough on Chicago. This is a team that can take one or possibly two games from Chicago, and to hear the Pacers tell it postgame, nobody is more aware of it than they are.
To hear the Bulls react to the same close contest? This team's attention to detail has perked up. Chicago knows that it's lucky it got away with outscoring Indiana by a combined 11 points over the last two games, and it will be looking to tighten the screws on the series after it heads down to Indiana on Thursday night.
The question now is, with opponents matching Chicago's intensity as the postseason moves along, will it even matter? Where does Chicago find its edge, now that the rest of the league has taken to playing like these Bulls?