Hours before his Bulls (5-0) took on the Pacers (0-5), Derrick Rose said he didn’t see much of a rivalry and visiting Indiana.
Friday evening, the words he uttered at the morning shootaround appeared to be flat-out wrong, as the two NBA Finals contenders went at it full tilt, with starters from both teams playing down the stretch, the opposing coaches making playoff-like maneuvers and the Bulls needing Rose’s (32 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 4-for-7 from three-point range, nine assists in 31 minutes) best effort of the preseason to escape with a hard-fought 103-98 victory at the United Center.
Just like the Oct. 4 preseason opener in Indianapolis, the Central Division foes went at it from the game’s outset, with Rose and Luol Deng (22 points, 3-for-4 from three-point range, six rebounds) exhibiting excellent chemistry and both playing aggressively on the offensive end. Indiana countered with Danny Granger (11 points) — starting over emerging young shooting guard Lance Stephenson (11 points, eight assists, seven rebounds), last season’s starter — who gave them a lift, along with All-Star small forward Paul George (22 points, four rebounds, four assists).
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While the Bulls took an early lead, upon Stephenson’s entrance, the visitors surged against the home team’s second unit — the Pacers kept many of the regulars in the game—and after being on the wrong end of a 16-0 run, the Bulls trailed, 29-21, after a period of play.
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A scoring-challenged second quarter ensued, but the Bulls’ reserves — sparked by, as usual, Taj Gibson (13 points) — managed to keep things within striking distance and when Rose and the other regulars returned, they sliced into the deficit even further. But behind George’s all-around play and center Roy Hibbert (18 points, six rebounds) getting it going on the inside, Indiana again built up a cushion and to make matters worse, Deng briefly left the contest after bumping his right knee, while rookie Erik Murphy banged his head and was also checked out in the locker room.
The Bulls’ lack of defense — the Pacers shot 57.6 percent from the field in the first half — and Indiana’s strong work on the boards were two of the biggest reasons they dug themselves a 50-43 hole at halftime, following their worst frame of the preseason thus far.
After the intermission, the Bulls gradually crept back into the contest, as the duo of Deng and Rose again led the charge. The longtime teammates exhibited excellent chemistry, both knocked down shots from three-point range and affected the game individually — Rose with his distributing and Deng with his underrated post-up game to help the Bulls seize advantage of the game in front of a sell-out crowd.
A much-improved Bulls defense also played a major part in the turnaround effort, but the Pacers hung tough and kept things close, as the hosts led, 77-75, heading into the final stanza.
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With Rose — who had his highest minute total of the exhibition campaign — and the other Bulls regulars seemingly done for the evening, it was up to a Gibson-led second unit to keep the home team afloat in the fourth quarter.
It seemed like both teams’ benches would finish off the game, but with less than six minutes left to go, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau reinserted Rose, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel put his starters back into the game — with Stephenson in for Granger, who was finished after straining his left calf; Bulls veteran Kirk Hinrich departed with a head injury, also not to return — prompting Deng and fellow Duke products Mike Dunleavy Jr. (who started in place of the sidelined Jimmy Butler) and briefly, Carlos Boozer, to also return for the stretch run.
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Suddenly, in a meaningless preseason affair, an intense atmosphere fitting the two divisional rivals facing off in the in May, not October, manifested itself, as it was a close-knit game late in the contest.
After a Deng runner, rugged power forward David West (17 points), who had been a force for the Pacers in the second half, was fouled with 1:18 remaining, but missed a pair of free throws — both teams struggled from the charity stripe late — preserving the Bulls’ 98-95 advantage. After a drive, Rose knocked down a pair of foul shots on the subsequent possession — with the crowd’s familiar “MVP” chant in the background — to widen the Bulls’ lead with under a minute on the clock.
The Bulls salted away the win — amid Vogel and Thibodeau making offense-defense substitutions and each calling multiple timeouts — to keep their preseason record undefeated, but the bizarre fashion in which it occurred, at least for this juncture in the season, definitely set a tone.
What rivalry, indeed.