The fact that Derrick Rose’s best regular-season game thus far coincided with the Bulls’ (5-3) best offensive game of the campaign was nice, but doing it against the previously undefeated Pacers (9-1) made it even better. The Bulls, led by Rose’s six three-pointers, dominated Indiana on both ends of the floor, leading to a 110-94 win Saturday night at the United Center.
“About time. I’ll keep shooting if they’re giving me shots,” Rose said. “I couldn’t feel my (sore right hamstring) while I was playing.
“We’re just trying to come together as a team.”
Rose (20 points, four assists) started the contest after missing Friday night’s win in Toronto and made an impact from the outset, hitting a floater and a three-pointer — two shots that he’s struggled with early in the regular season — on successive Bulls possessions. The point guard, who was also solid as a distributor, keyed a 10-0 Bulls run to give them a double-digit first-quarter cushion.
“I think he’s getting close. He tweaked a hamstring, and I thought he hit a stretch in the Cleveland game, where in the third quarter, I thought he got into a nice rhythm,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said before the contest, somewhat prophetically. “So I thought he was very, very close at that point. Each day just improve, it will come. He’s a great player, and it’s going to happen.”
In a matchup of All-Star small forwards, Luol Deng (23 points, seven rebounds) got the best of Pacers counterpart Paul George (12 points on 3-of-14 shooting) in the early going, smothering the Indiana star on defense, while already reaching double figures with his aggressive scoring. Thanks to their balanced offense, feisty defense and transition scoring, the Bulls jumped out to a 31-20 lead at the conclusion of the opening period, despite a strong frame by the inside tandem of rugged veteran power forward David West (13 points, seven rebounds) and mammoth center Roy Hibbert (14 points, 10 rebounds).
Deng, operating in the post, continued to carry the Bulls’ offensive load at the outset of the second quarter, with able assistance from reserves Kirk Hinrich (13 points, eight assists) and Taj Gibson (15 points, eight rebounds), whose season-long consistency on the interior didn’t change this evening, to maintain a comfortable margin of separation, as All-Star center Joakim Noah (seven rebounds, six assists) anchored the defense. The lead furthered ballooned as the period went on, with two consecutive Rose triples sending the partisan crowd into a frenzy and more importantly, another stellar first half of defense — the Pacers shot 31.4 percent from the field — and after a 39-15 stanza, the Bulls went into the intermission holding a 60-35 advantage.
“We’re just striving for improvement,” Thibodeau explained. “There’s things we still can do a lot better. We have to be able to count on our defense and rebounding every night, and hopefully our offense will continue to improve. There’s going to be some nights where you shoot the ball better than others, but the defense and rebounding, you have to be able to count on that every night.”
After the break, the Bulls’ dominance remained the status quo, particularly on the defensive end, as Pacers wing players George and Lance Stephenson (12 points on 5-of-14 shooting), both of whom have had banner seasons to date, were frustrated into incredibly poor shooting performances by Deng and starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler (10 points). The Bulls’ lead reached the 33-point mark on a Butler four-point play — he knocked down a corner jumper, plus the foul — with 3:36 remaining in the third quarter, en route to the Bulls closing the period with an 84-59 edge.
Indiana gradually made the score look a bit more respectable, but though the gap closed a bit, the Bulls still held a commanding lead, even as Pacers point guard George Hill and reserve forward Chris Copeland got it going offensively. But as the likes of newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. (10 points), one of six Bulls players in double figures on the night, did enough to keep the margin wide — with help from the likes of Rose, who came back into the game with a 20-point lead and 8:13 remaining — eventually leading to a measure of revenge, a breakout game from the former league MVP and every NBA team having at least one loss on the season.