Facing the threat of a three-game losing streak and getting swept by their primary Central Division foes, as well as being without the heart and soul of their team, what did the Bulls (37-31) do Saturday night at the United Center?
They dug deep and rode a fourth-quarter spurt to overtake the Pacers (43-27), then survived Indiana’s last-gasp attempt to send it into overtime to hang on for a 87-84 win, finally getting on the board for the two teams’ season series and displaying the trademark resiliency that has defined them during Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tenure.
Playing without Joakim Noah—the All-Star center was sidelined due to a sore right foot, resulting from his ongoing bout of plantar fasciitis and leading to veteran Nazr Mohammed (11 points, seven rebounds, three assists) starting in his place—the Bulls were in the familiar situation of being short-handed.
But playing against their division rivals, it was a defensive-oriented, tight-knit affair from the outset, as the Pacers relied on the interior scoring of center Roy Hibbert (18 points, 12 rebounds), as well as the perimeter contributions of emerging shooting guard Lance Stephenson (10 points), while the scoring of Carlos Boozer (18 points, 10 rebounds) and All-Star Luol Deng (20 points, seven rebounds) helped the Bulls keep pace early.
But the starting forward duo each picked up two quick fouls and the continued solid play of Hibbert, as well as All-Star swingman Paul George (23 points, 11 rebounds) making an impact on both ends of the floor, allowed Indiana to create some separation.
Despite Mohammed surprisingly making his presence felt on offense, the Bulls trailed, 22-16, following the opening period.
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Behind the play of George and reserve big man Ian Mahinmi, the visitors maintained their advantage and seemingly appeared to be in their comfort zone.
However, the Bulls stayed within striking distance, buoyed by the play-making of backup point guard Nate Robinson (nine points, five assists), and upon the reinsertion of both Deng and Boozer, the hosts narrowed the gap.
Once again, the contest evolved into a tight-knit affair, as George’s individual scoring and fast-break points off Bulls’ turnovers did the trick for the guests, while the Bulls thrived via the combination of Boozer and Deng.
At the intermission of a game of runs, Indiana struck last before halftime, putting the Bulls in a 44-39 hole.
After the break, the same pattern of Boozer and Deng leading the way for the Bulls and George and Hibbert doing the same for the Pacers repeated itself.
However, timely baskets from the likes of Mohammed and top reserve Taj Gibson (11 points, five rebounds)—who replaced Boozer after the starter picked up his fourth foul—helped ensure that the Bulls would stay on Indiana’s heels, even with starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, just back from an injury-related absence,
Deng, who has been struggling as of late, rose to the occasion and battled George, his fellow All-Star small forward, in a duel of two of the game’s best two-way players and after George had to sit with his fourth foul, Hibbert attempted to pick up the slack, but the Bulls persisted with their push to overtake their guests.
With under a minute to play in the period, a Robinson flagrant-two foul on Stephenson—the diminutive scorer was ejected for horse-collaring his opponent on a fast break—almost reversed the momentum of the contest, but a Daequan Cook (nine points, five rebounds) layup to beat the third-quarter buzzer gave the Bulls a 68-67 lead heading into the final stanza.
Cook built upon the aforementioned play as the fourth quarter began, showcasing both his shooting and playmaking ability, while rookie Marquis Teague, facing off with his hometown team, displayed both poise and readiness in the absence of Robinson and Hinrich playing limited minutes, playing big roles in the Bulls going on an 8-0 run and building a slim cushion.
In only his second game back from a 10-game layoff due to a left-knee sprain, Gibson also stepped up, making positive plays on either end of the court, and the Bulls took control of the contest, pleasing the home crowd—though its enthusiasm was slightly dampened by Cook having to leave the game with a left thigh bruise; he hustled to chase down a loose ball and fell into the baseline photographers, and had to be helped to the locker room with the support of teammate Vladimir Radmanovic and Bulls head trainer Fred Tedeschi—as the game entered its stretch run.
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But the Bulls could never quite put the Pacers in their rear-view window—a George Hill four-point play with 40 seconds remaining cut the Bulls’ lead to 87-84—and the visitors continued to challenge them late.
Indiana had one final opportunity with 15.1 seconds left, but after George missed a three-pointer and then, after a Pacers offensive rebound, a second triple at the buzzer, the Bulls survived.