The Indiana Pacers didn't have much credibility outside their home state as they entered their first postseason in five years. But in a week's time and four games into their opening-round series with the Chicago Bulls, a national audience is slowly realizing that, holy cow, these guys can really defend. And, for the first time since Anthony Johnson scored 25 points with eight assists to lead the Pacers, the team has a postseason win to show for it.
Indiana is still facing a 1-3 deficit, down to a Bulls squad that finished the season with the best record in basketball, but this team and its interim coach Frank Vogel have clearly earned the respect of the league -- and the Bulls -- with its amplified play. Saturday's 89-84 win marked the fifth (if you count the teams' last regular-season meeting on March 18th) straight game the Pacers have taken Chicago to the brink. This time, Indiana managed to finally break through with a win to sustain its season.
Of course, because these Pacers are so mercurial, things were pretty dicey down the stretch. With just six minutes left in the contest, Indiana led by a seemingly insurmountable 80-66 score. And though by the final buzzer there was nothing "seeming" about that too-big lead, the Pacers managed to nearly give up another one in the clutch. Benefiting from a rash of Pacer turnovers, Chicago whittled the lead down to one with less than a minute left, and even had a chance to tie the game with 14.1 seconds left, down by three.
Alas, on a guard-around screen Chicago has executed numerous times this season, Joakim Noah failed to find Bulls MVP candidate Derrick Rose, and Chicago was left to find a wide-open-for-a-reason Carlos Boozer in the corner for a desperate 3-pointer that fell short.
The play was typical of Chicago's offensive futility, and Indiana's fantastic defense on Rose throughout the game. Though the Bulls third-year guard sprained his ankle in the first quarter (forcing him to leave the bench for a few minutes as he sought treatment), it was mainly the long-armed defense of Pacers rookie Paul George and aggressive footwork of veteran Dahntay Jones that held Rose to 6-of-22 shooting on the afternoon. Jones did admit after the game that Rose "was hobbled," and that his left ankle injury may have played a part, but this sort of defense on Rose has been a hallmark of the Pacers throughout this series, in spite of Rose's crunch-time brilliance and high points-per-game average.
"[Jones and George] are doing an equally great job on him," Frank Vogel pointed out post game. "I have a hard time deciding who to go to down the stretch. They're very different types of defenders."
"We're just trying to make it," George explained, "so that he's tired and shooting jumpers. Anyone is going to be frustrated when they're shooting jumpers, and [Chicago] is not at their best when he's shooting jumpers."
Jones, though he gabs a bit on the court, shooed away any recognition for his role in Rose's tough Game 4. "I can't even recall the final play," he said following the Pacers' win, "it all happened so fast." Such is life guarding Rose, even if he's only on one leg.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Indiana's defensive attack was the different styles the team used to keep the Bulls to 38 percent shooting and a miserable 95 points per 100 possessions -- a mark that takes into account Chicago's hot-shooting, 28-point fourth quarter, which was mainly the fault of the Indiana offense turning the ball over six times. Indiana caused nine turnovers in the first quarter and a half, trapping Rose miles away from the hoop and recovering on drivers expertly. It was the second straight game that Chicago debuted with a rash of miscues.
For the next two quarters after that, before the offensive meltdown, Indiana got out on shooters and forced timid and usually fruitless long jumpers from the Bulls. The Pacers' pitiful offense down the stretch helped make Chicago's final 84 points look a little more palatable, but this was a dominant defensive game throughout for Indiana.
Don't think the Bulls didn't notice, and don't think they're not frustrated. Noah was the team's best player in the loss with 21 points and 14 rebounds, but he was also chirping at teammates (and, to Noah's credit, himself) after the mistakes piled up. Boozer was often the object of Chicago scorn, as he needed 15 shots to score 15 points, missed several chippies around the rim, and scuttled a potential run (Chicago had halved Indiana's 18-point lead in a 3 1/2-minute turn) with a needless technical foul for taunting Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert was more amused than shook by Boozer's filthy mouth following the contest. "I've got a lot of respect for Carlos Boozer," he parsed carefully, "but our crowd was so loud that I honestly couldn't hear what he said. Your guess is as good as mine."
If your guess is good, then you're good to guess that both teams will come through with more of the same during Tuesday's Game 5. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can tinker all he wants with the formula that led the Bulls to 65 wins in the team's first 85 tries, but Saturday's Game 4 was just more of the same between these two teams save for a different outcome. Tuesday will be just another in a growing line of pitched battles.
The Pacers obviously have an edge in guarding Rose (now shooting 35 percent in four playoff games) and the rest of the Bulls (just under 40 percent on the series), and Chicago now has Rose's iffy ankle to worry about (he was noticeably limping following the game while promising that he'll be fine by Tuesday's tipoff), along with the growing confidence of Danny Granger -- who scored 24 points to go with 10 rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes of nearly error-less play on both ends.
"Danny Granger," Vogel said after the win, "is a flat-out gamer. I'm glad he's on my team."
Indiana, even in defeat earlier this week, appeared to have a lot of those types. Now, for the first time in a brutal series, they have a win to show for such mettle. Will it lead to any playing time beyond Tuesday's Game 5? That remains to be seen, but truth be told the amount of games this series goes doesn't really matter. The Pacers have made their mark. And it left a bruise.