Thibodeau: Indiana's a great defensive team
INDIANAPOLIS — While Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s “more than enough to win” mantra proved to be accurate Saturday night in Atlanta, Monday evening was a different story, as his Bulls (29-19) fell to their chief Central Division rival, the Pacers (29-19), 111-101, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the rescheduled game from the Dec. 26 matchup postponed by snow.
Even with the return of Carlos Boozer to the lineup, the undermanned Bulls were lacking in both depth and defense — the latter is typically provided by injured starters Kirk Hinrich and All-Star Joakim Noah — and allowed Indiana to knot up the divisional race with an abnormally high-scoring affair for a contest between the two familiar foes.
The hosts came out of the gates fired up, scoring the first seven points of the evening and eventually taking a double-digit lead, 13-2, prompting a timeout by Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau before the contest was even four minutes old.
Rookie point guard Marquis Teague, an Indianapolis native, saw some early playing time due to Nate Robinson (19 points, nine assists, three steals) — the Eastern Conference player of the week, again starting for the injured Hinrich, who remained in Chicago with a right-elbow injury — picking up two quick fouls.
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Despite their horrendous start, the Bulls gradually settled down and chipped away the deficit they faced, as veteran Rip Hamilton (10 points), mired in a slump as of late, and Boozer (10 points, five rebounds), in his first game back in the lineup after missing three consecutive outings with a right-hamstring injury, helped the visitors make the contest more competitive.
Taj Gibson (10 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots) and All-Star Luol Deng (13 points, six rebounds) also got their offense in gear and although the injury bug bit the already-undermanned Bulls yet again — Marco Belinelli (24 points) rolled his right ankle after knocking down a triple, plus the foul; he stayed on the court to shoot the ensuing free throw before immediately going to the locker room and being replaced by Daequan Cook—the visitors’ momentum persisted and after a quarter of play, they led, 29-28, following a Teague reverse layup at the buzzer.
Buoyed by the combination of Deng and Gibson as scorers, as well as the playmaking of Robinson, the Bulls’ held on to their tenuous edge, though the Pacers, sparked by the interior play of reserve big man Tyler Hansbrough—not having to go against Gibson, who played center with Noah missing his third consecutive game with plantar fasciitis in his right foot—were right on their heels.
But the visitors’ small-ball approach, which worked so well Saturday against an Atlanta team without a lot of size, somehow managed to do the trick against a bigger, more physical opponent, even with the shooting of Pacers point guard George Hill (22 points, six assists).
It remained a tight-knit affair in the second quarter, as Indiana continued to pound the ball inside to veteran power forward David West (29 points, nine rebounds) and on the other end, the Bulls utilized their quickness advantage, resulting in a game that featured two of the three top defensive teams in the league somehow evolving into a relatively high-scoring affair in the first half.
As halftime approached, the Pacers overtook their guests and at the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 60-54, with Noah escorted to the locker room just before the end of the period, due to NBA rules about attire on the bench.
After the break, the Bulls—with Noah back on the bench, wearing a dress shirt and conventional blazer, a big difference from his typically off-beat style—continued to challenge the Pacers behind Robinson’s scoring, but the hosts maintained their slim cushion.
Indiana’s lead gradually ballooned to double digits and while the Bulls didn’t let things get out of hand, it appeared that they were unraveling, as evidenced by a technical foul on Hamilton—while walking to the bench after picking up his fourth foul—and West punishing them on the inside.
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The home crowd, consisting of less Bulls loyalists than in the past, roared their approval, as the likes of Paul George (21 points, 11 rebounds) and Lance Stephenson (15 points) made highlight-type plays, as well as holding their guests at bay as the third period waned on.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls faced an 87-76 deficit, after Gibson’s last-second floater was waved off, following an official review.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, the visitors continued to battle, but even when matched up against the Pacers’ second unit, they initially couldn’t make up significant ground in the physical contest, mostly due to the hosts’ gaudy shooting percentage.
But the offensively-balanced guests—Belinelli, who led the charge, joined all five starters in reaching double figures, as did fellow reserve Jimmy Butler (10 points), who made George work for his points on the other end of the court—continued to chip away, making it a two-possession game as the game approached crunch time.
A Belinelli floater at approximately the two-minute mark made it a four-point game, 98-94, in Indiana’s favor, but after a Pacers turnover, a questionable out-of-bounds call gave the hosts back the ball and they capitalized, as a George triple gave them a seven-point lead with 1:18 remaining.
That sequence turned out to put the nail in the Bulls’ coffin, as they were forced to foul to stop the clock—much to the displeasure of the partisan fans—and get the ball back late, to no avail, as the Pacers, now tied for first place with the visitors in the Central Division, knocked down clutch free throws in the final minute of the game to seal the deal for their 14th consecutive home win.