SOUTH BEND, IND. With these two teams, the location (the campus of the University of Notre Dame, alma mater of Bulls executive vice president John Paxson, former Fighting Irish star), the host team (despite taking place in Indiana, it was a Bulls home game, which was reflected by the mostly partisan crowd) or time of year (last seasons preseason opener was a dogfight) doesnt matter.
Central Division rivals Chicago and Indiana gutted it out until the end Friday evening, resulting in a hard-fought 97-90 Bulls win in the preseason finale.
The Bulls jumped all over the Pacers from the outset, with Joakim Noahs (12 points, nine rebounds) hard-charging style leading the way and his teammates following suit. Rip Hamiltons (12 points, six rebounds, five assists) potent mid-range game, in either half-court or transition, was clicking, while Nate Robinson (21 points, eight assists) set the table in the absence of Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng (17 points, seven rebounds) was his typically versatile self.
For the Pacers, All-Star center Roy Hibbert (17 points, eight rebounds) was an offensive force early leading to Noah picking up two quick fouls, though veteran backup Nazr Mohammed picked up the slack, in a continuation of strong preseason but couldnt stifle the Bulls singlehandedly, resulting in Indiana facing a double-digit deficit. After a period of play, the Bulls led, 28-16.
Taj Gibson (nine points, 11 rebounds), who was inserted into the contest after starter Carlos Boozer (13 points, six rebounds, three steals) picked up his second foul, displayed his normal high activity level on the glass, while Deng, in his role of go-to guy with the second unit, carried much of the offensive load, including showing as a post-up threat, a little-used wrinkle.
The reserve backcourt of inexperienced rookie Marquis Teague and veteran newcomer Marco Belinelli, both of whom had struggled throughout the exhibition campaign was solid, as Teague showed poise in directing the offense against his hometown Pacers and the slumping Belinelli hit some contested, high degree-of-difficulty attempts.
Despite the contributions of Indiana reserves Ian Mahinmi and Gerald Green, the Bulls maintained their comfortable winning margin and when Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau came back with his regulars, they continued to hold the Pacers at bay. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 52-43 advantage.
Although the Pacers picked up their intensity after the break, the Bulls didnt wane, as Boozer picked up his game, Noah remained a major factor and Robinsons underrated playmaking helped set up his teammates. It was a physical affair, but as the well-balanced scoring of the Bulls who placed all five starters in double figures on the nightpersisted, the gap between the two teams remained.
Robinsons abilities to distribute and take care of the basketball was significant to the Bulls effort, though the teams defense left something to be desired, regardless of the fast tempo and transition opportunities for both sides in the period. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were ahead, 78-66.
A Pacers run to begin the fourth quarter sparked by the inside play of Mahinmi and Greens aerial acrobatics made it a ballgame again, infuriating Thibodeau, who called a timeout to restore order. Whatever he told his players during the stoppage of play apparently worked as did reinserting his regulars, sans Gibson, who made a major impact on the glass, into the lineup as they raised their level of play and for the time being, staved off Indianas threat behind a more scoring-oriented stretch from Robinson.
But the Pacers refused to fade away quietly into the night, capitalizing on errant Bulls shot attempts with timely buckets of their own, making it a one-possession game, 93-90, after a traditional three-point play by power forward David West with 1:09 remaining. But a baseline jumper by Rip Hamilton with under a minute left gave the Bulls some breathing room and a improbable fadeaway by Robinson sealed the deal with 18.6 seconds on the clock.