The Chicago Bulls prevailed again, pulling away from the Indiana Pacers for the third time in three contested attempts to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the team's first-round series. But if the coaches for either side don't mind their rosters in Saturday's Game 4, we could be due for a nasty, borderline dirty back-and-forth. These two teams have played close contests that have come down to the final few possessions four times in the last month -- with the fifth such pairing due to take place on Saturday. At this point all you can bank on are physical fouls and angry sneers with plenty of defense on either end.
The frustration has to have reached a fever pitch for the Pacers, who have seen the coin somehow land on Chicago's side three times this week despite easily matching the Bulls' toughness and effort. Though that hopelessness was palpable amongst the Pacers immediately following the loss, some of it showed in the form of hard fouls and a bit of jawing in Game 3 as Indiana desperately tried to extend its season.
The contest started promising enough, because though the shots weren't falling, the spacing for both teams was considerably superior to Monday's ugly Game 2. The fluidity didn't last for long, as both teams initiated yet another slugfest, with the Bulls only prevailing because, you guessed it, Derrick Rose was able to turn the corner on defenders several times down the stretch, while Kyle Korver (12 points on just six shots, hitting on all four of his fourth-quarter attempts from the floor) spread the floor as he has all series.
This was a welcome respite for Chicago after a miserable first half that saw the team's ineffective offense run into obstacle after Pacer obstacle, even if Indiana couldn't pull away. Chicago gave up 12 turnovers in the first 21 minutes of the contest, something that when coupled by five Pacer blocks during the same turn helped initiate an Indiana attack that put up 25 second-quarter points. Twenty-five points in a quarter might not seem like much to those of you who have been watching the Thunder and Nuggets go at it, but it's a mark that both teams have achieved just four times in their last 16 combined quarters of play.
The ugly first half gave way to a nasty second half, as both teams grew snippy with each other and each foul or non-call seemed to draw the ire of whoever the unduly wronged party was. Both lineups and benches seemed ready to blow when Jeff Foster nailed Derrick Rose and then Luol Deng with hard fouls in the third quarter, but cooler heads somehow prevailed. With the Pacers at their most desperate and Chicago at its weariest point of the season, this might not be the case in Game 4.
The weariest of all the Bulls would have to be do-it-all forward Luol Deng, who was an all-around terror with 21 points, six boards and six assists. Deng couldn't add to any of those numbers in the fourth quarter, however, as he was clearly pained and fatigued from playing each and every minute of the first three quarters of the game. Though Deng's effort never let up, he was constantly grabbing at his shorts and hips throughout the second half and collapsing into the Bulls bench at every timeout.
Deng was ebullient after the game. But if the Bulls need any inspiration for wanting to close out Indiana on Saturday and take in a few days of rest, they needn't look much further than Deng at the entrance of the locker room with two bags of ice on his knees and each foot in an ice bucket.
"I just can't say enough about the guy. He does everything for us," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Deng reminded the press that "every game is going to be different," whether that means focusing on shooting, slashing, defending or some combination of the lot. Different in terms of role, perhaps, but not in terms of extended minutes -- Deng averaged a team-high 39 minutes in his first healthy season in years, with that number rising to nearly 42 minutes a contest during the postseason. He'll be out there again come Saturday.
Luckily for Luol, as has been the case for each of Chicago's wins and losses this year, both Rose and Thibodeau seemed primed and ready to move on, basketball brains ever-churning.
"You have to learn from every game," Thibodeau said, "when you play the same team over and over again."
Before the Bulls coach could remind the waiting press through this well-worn cliché, Rose was already hunched over a team employee's laptop in the locker room with Brian Scalabrine, asking the video operator to replay specific plays from Game 3. Stuck wandering and looking for a bar of soap in the visitor's locker room, Rose couldn't help but go back over and peep at game replays a second time as he waited for that bar before disappearing into the shower. A closer inspection revealed that it was a buggy error message on the coordinator's laptop that broke up the powwow, and not some sated sense of basketball self. There's always more tape to watch.
The Pacers might want to take a break from the typical tape go-round on Friday, as another minute spent obsessing over another close loss might drive them to distraction. Once again, Indiana did just about all it could save for putting Chicago in the penalty too early in the fourth quarter (after just 4 1/2 minutes, with a rested Derrick Rose in his first minute back ready to get to the line for six fourth-quarter attempts), and failing to do what it needed to on a few key possessions late.
The last two Indiana scoring attempts were properly conceived but poorly executed as both Darren Collison and Danny Granger forced makeable but tough shots. And the Pacers need to know that even if Korver is going to shoot the ball two whole steps behind the 3-point line, you still have to close out on him. Indiana did what it could to force turnovers early (though Chicago coughed it up just three times in the final 27 minutes) and match the Bulls on the glass, but the team just didn't have an answer for Rose turning the corner on defenders.
Hopefully the Pacers find a way to deal with this frustration in ways that move beyond knocking those driving Bulls on the deck. But after an exasperating week like this, can you blame them for at least considering it?