INDIANAPOLIS—Forget the Bulls’ injury-plagued campaign and the Pacers’ perceived rise as the new ruler of the Central Division, as well as the successors to the title of most worthy in the East of challenging the defending-champion Heat—when it comes to this rivalry, no matter the situation going into the game, it’s almost guaranteed to be intense and come down to the wire.
Playing short-handed, as usual, the Bulls (34-26) utilized a hodge-podge crew of reserves and their typically resilient mentality to climb out of an early hole, but after tying the game in the fourth quarter, they didn’t have enough to complete the comeback against the division leaders, and fell to Indiana (38-22), 97-92, Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
With sidelined superstar Derrick Rose sitting on the bench for the first time since tearing his ACL last April—in street clothes, Rose served as a de facto assistant coach, dispensing both encouragement and advice to his teammates—the Bulls came out of the gates playing with energy, though they were countered by an equally fired-up Pacers squad.
All-Star center Joakim Noah’s (14 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) recent scoring surge continued in the early going, but Indiana’s balanced attack helped the hosts jump out to a slight edge in the raucous arena, which was filled with both local loyalists and fans of the visitors.
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Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George (10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) was the catalyst for Indiana, while hometown product George Hill (21 points) contributed as both a playmaker and secondary scorer, while the Bulls’ offensive woes persisted, something that wasn’t helped by a disadvantage on the glass, Carlos Boozer’s early foul trouble or the absence of starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who joined Rose, Taj Gibson and Rip Hamilton as out of Sunday’s lineup, due to a sore right foot.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert (18 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots) also found his offensive rhythm, aiding the home team’s gaudy 60 percent shooting for the high-scoring opening period, after which the Bulls trailed, 32-19.
Along with rookie point guard Marquis Teague, an Indianapolis native, seldom-used reserve Vladimir Radmanovic started the second quarter—swingman Jimmy Butler (20 points), who replaced Boozer, and starters Noah and Marco Belinelli (20 points) also began the frame—and backup center Nazr Mohammed eventually joined the fray, but despite the unconventional lineup, the Bulls competed against the Pacers’ second unit.
Belinelli , who was eventually replaced by reserve sharpshooter Daequan Cook, was the Bulls’ go-to scorer, while Butler also asserted himself offensively, Teague handled playmaking duties, Mohammed provided toughness inside and Radmanovic proved willing to do the dirty work, resulting in trimming the deficit to single digits and getting the visitors back within striking distance.
While the extended playing time from the quintet of reserves yielded some highlights—such as a spectacular Radmanovic driving dunk and two huge Mohammed swats and a vicious dunk of his own, plus the foul—but more significantly, it bought Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau some time to rest his regulars, as well as proving his theory of sticking with units that function well together.
At the intermission, the Bulls were still behind, but by the much more manageable score of 47-40, with their starters having fresh legs to start the second half and their bench outscoring Indiana’s, 17-4.
After the break, the energetic regulars immediately got to the task of cutting the Pacers’ lead even more, with Noah again leading the way with his scoring and Nate Robinson, who started in place of Hinrich, as usual, setting up his teammates as a passer.
Indiana power forward David West (31 points) had other ideas, building upon a solid first half of action, but the Bulls persisted and didn’t allow the hosts to further widen the gap in a fast-paced, up-and-down stretch of the game.
Things eventually settled down and after the Pacers seemingly were on the verge of pushing things to a double-digit spread, the Bulls, buoyed by a spark off the bench from Butler, who knocked down a crucial triple, once again battled back to make things a two-possession game toward the end of the third quarter.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls had seized momentum of the contest and cut things to 69-66, while their vocal fans made their presence felt in a hostile environment.
A thunderous dunk from Luol Deng (15 points) set the tone for the fourth quarter, as the All-Star, who was having a quiet night offensively—he did play solid defense on both George and West—came alive as a scorer to lift the visitors.
It remained a close-knit affair and though the Pacers were buoyed by the torrid shooting of Hill, who made his first six field-goal attempts—including three treys—the Bulls gradually inched closer, until Butler tied the contest at 80 apiece with 7:04 remaining.
Indiana’s size advantage on the interior gave the hosts a boost heading into the game’s stretch run, but the Bulls were on their heels and following a Hibbert goaltend of a Belinelli fast-break layup with 1:27 left, it was a one-point game, 90-89, in the Pacers’ favor.
But after a basket by the hosts, a crucial Bulls’ shot-clock violation with under a minute on the clock, followed by a West putback with 32.2 seconds to play gave Indiana a 94-89 advantage, it appeared as if the visitors’ chances of an improbable comeback victory were over.
However, after Hill split a pair of free-throw attempts, Butler hit a three-pointer to pull the Bulls within 95-92 with 19.9 seconds remaining, then Hill, regarded as being solid from the charity stripe, was fouled again and this time, the point guard missed a pair.
Following a timeout with 13.3 seconds left, Belinelli missed a game-tying attempt, but the Bulls retained possession, but the subsequent inbounds play resulted in a turnover and West was fouled, then knocked down two foul shots to close things out.