In a series marked by aggressive play, low scores, and close contests, the first team to blink was the first group to take a dive. And with Chicago's intensity sustaining as it entered Game 5 on Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers backed off the throttle a little bit. Sensing the shift in speed, Chicago took advantage, running out to a 27-point blowout win as it advanced past the Pacers and into the second round of the playoffs.
The turnaround was startling, as Chicago was afforded good looks at the hoop for what seemed like the first time in weeks. Probably because it was the first time in weeks -- Chicago's offensive slump carried over from the regular season, and Indiana's long-armed, aggressive defense took advantage to the tune of four close, catty games to begin what was supposed to be a coronation of sorts for the Bulls.
Indiana's traps weren't as potent in Game 5, though, the long arms didn't reach as far. Chicago's defense stayed on point, which allowed the Bulls to rush out for fast break opportunities and pile up easy buckets. Indiana's poor communication in transition also added to the mess, as Chicago built a 22-11 lead just midway through the first quarter. The Pacers rallied, but never threatened. After four games of just about matching everything Chicago did, Indiana just couldn't keep up.
And though Derrick Rose's shot came and went, and Joakim Noah was to be admired with his 14 points and four blocks, Luol Deng was the constant force behind Chicago's disruptive play on both ends. He didn't act as the second ball-handler Chicago so badly needed as they lost Game 4 in Indiana, but his penetration as a second option on a screen and roll, his ability to drive and kick, and his 3-5 shooting from long range gave the Pacers an all-around problem that they just couldn't counter.
Oh, and he also played lockdown defense, even if Danny Granger had another 20-point evening.
"I can't say enough about Luol," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after his first playoff series win as a head coach. "He keeps us together. I thought his energy was terrific. He's the glue of the Bulls."
"I appreciate that," Deng said upon hearing Thibodeau's words. "We really made it a point today to come out with a lot of intensity. They have been playing hard the whole series. Indiana's been able to come out more aggressive that we have, and we really made it a point today to come out with a lot of intensity."
Deng managed 24 points in the win, with six rebounds, seven assists, three steals, a block, and two turnovers that (and we promise we're not trying to paint the Bulls forward as infallible) were the fault of teammates failing to spot up where they were supposed to on the perimeter as Deng whipped the pass. Those seven assists were key. Though the Bulls won't be handing the ball to Deng as their point forward anytime soon, the extra wrinkle in Chicago's offense was enough to give the Bulls a comfortable lead.
"When we move the ball really well," Deng pointed out after the game, "it becomes contagious. Every time we have high assists, we shoot the ball well."
Did they ever. Chicago tied a team playoff record by hitting 14 three-pointers, shooting over 45 percent from long range and piling up 27 assists on 40 field goals. Indiana's defensive streak came to a crashing close as the Bulls tossed in over 123 points per 100 possessions, after managing just 95.5 in the team's last meeting in Indiana, and 100 per 100 in the two previous meetings. Even Derrick Rose, who at one point in the third quarter was 5-33 from behind the three-point arc for his entire postseason, got into the act by hitting three of five bombs in the third quarter.
That particular quarter could have gone terribly for Chicago. Rose entered the second half with three fouls, and picked up his fourth with a little over nine minutes left in the period. Chicago pulled their star while up 10 points, and within three minutes the Pacers had whittled that lead to four points. Thibodeau rolled the dice on bringing Rose back in, but to hear Thibs tell it, it wasn't the gambit that observers painted it as.
"Derrick can play with fouls," Thibodeau said at his post-game press conference. "He has shown us that throughout the course of the season. He did a good job of concentrating on his body position."
Well, that's one way of putting it. Rose immediately found Taj Gibson for a baseline jumper, he made a spectacular block at the rim of Pacer center Roy Hibbert's lay-up attempt, before tossing in his three three-pointers. And even with four fouls, Rose was hounding Pacer point man Darren Collison, who had a miserable game. Collison contributed seven points on seven shots, not too terrible, but he was charged with staying with Bulls afterthought defender Keith Bogans, and Bogans made five three-pointers in Game 5 as Collison failed to close out.
Rose eventually picked up that fifth foul 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, but by then the Pacers were relenting. Josh McRoberts had just been thrown out after flagrantly responding to a rather flagrant Joakim Noah elbow (Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel: "He said he got an elbow in the throat. In this series, everyone got an elbow in the throat."), both Granger and guard A.J. Price were smarting at Noah, and the Pacers just couldn't keep up in transition as Chicago went off for 32 points in the final period.
A close-out win, to hear the Bulls tell it, was exactly what the doctor ordered. "It's good for us to end this series like this -- we didn't really want another close game," Deng admitted. And in a rare instance of Derrick Rose going off script and away from the Athlete's Cliché Handbook, the Bulls point man didn't pretend like he wanted to lace up the sneakers again later tonight, and take to the second round.
"Of course," Rose said, "you want rest."
He'll get it. With Orlando's blowout win over Atlanta on Tuesday night, the second round series between Chicago and either Atlanta or Orlando won't start until next Monday, welcome news for a Bulls team still smarting from all angles. Rose will get to rest his injured ankle, a malady he's still working through ("I was scared, afraid if I twisted it again it would really hurt."), Deng will get some time off after averaging over 42 minutes per game in the opening round, and Chicago will get plenty of time to re-assess just why this series was as competitive and close as it was.
The learning process isn't over, as Chicago eases into the uncomfortable role that it earned by winning more games than any other NBA team this season. And though this plucky Pacers squad didn't exactly take the Bulls the full seven games, Chicago does know what it can rely on when the going gets tired and sweaty.
The roster, as a whole, will find ways to contribute on even their most frustrating of nights. But above all, Luol Deng will be that rock; par for the course for the Bull that has been in Chicago the longest.
And, more often than not, the Bull that's stuck on the court for the longest. Don't expect to see Luol Deng stop tugging at his shorts any time soon.