INDIANAPOLIS— One battle doesn’t decide an entire war, but if Wednesday night’s 97-80 Bulls (1-3) loss at the hands of the Pacers (5-0) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse means anything in the long run, it’s that the Central Division race will be a bloodbath this season.
After Luol Deng (17 points) opened the game’s scoring, Derrick Rose (17 points on 6-for-15 shooting) made three straight baskets — a mid-range jumper, a three-pointer and a floater — on consecutive Bulls possessions with former teammate C.J. Watson, starting in place of the injured George Hill, defending him. All-Star center Joakim Noah also made an early impact, demonstrating his uncanny passing acumen by dishing out four assists in the early going, but the Pacers, with league-leading shot-blocker Roy Hibbert (eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots) making his presence felt on both ends of the floor, Indiana kept things close.
The frontcourt scoring of Hibbert, rugged veteran power forward David West (17 points, 13 rebounds) and athletic All-Star swingman Paul George (21 points), coupled with two first-quarter fouls, enabled the Pacers to overtake the Bulls and obtain some breathing room. Through the opening period of play, the Bulls trailed their Central Division foes, 25-17.
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Deng, playing with the second unit, made plays on both ends of the floor to draw the Bulls closer early in the second frame. Repeatedly using his size in the post against the smaller Lance Stephenson (15 points), Deng was aggressive as a scorer and with additional offensive firepower from top reserve Taj Gibson, the Bulls seized the lead, courtesy of a 16-2 run to start the quarter.
Upon Rose’s reentry into the contest, the point guard picked up right where he left off—his trademark change of direction off the dribble was in effect, but patience was added to his explosiveness—and despite missing a buzzer-beating jumper at the intermission, the Bulls took a 43-37 lead into the break.
Early in the third quarter, the Pacers, led by George’s scoring and all-around play, took back the game’s momentum, going on a 10-2 spurt to start the period and briefly overtook the Bulls. To make matters worse, Deng was shaken up and had to be sidelined, a rarity for the ironman wing. George took full advantage of his counterpart’s absence, helping Indiana build a slim cushion, while using his length on the defensive end to smother Rose on the other side of the ball, as the Pacers capitalized on Bulls’ offensive miscues.
But the Bulls’ second unit, while not adept at scoring as it was in the first half, managed to keep things within striking distance, then went on a 7-0 run, as timely baskets by Kirk Hinrich (12 points, five assists) and longtime teammate Deng—the All-Star small forward, who returned to the contest midway through the frame, completed a three-point play with 5.9 seconds left in the frame, coupled by a technical foul on Pacers head coach Frank Vogel for protesting the call and subsequent free throw—pulled the visitors to within a single point, 63-62, heading into the final stanza.
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The contest evolved into a tight-knit, back-and-forth affair in the fourth quarter, with Deng continuing to come up big for the Bulls, while the likes of Stephenson and reserves Luis Scola and seldom-used point guard Donald Sloan made the most out of their opportunities for the Pacers.
Stephenson, who had struggled with his shot all night, suddenly caught fire from the perimeter, and Scola, one of the most praised acquisitions of the summer, surprisingly stole the ball from Deng and went coast to coast for a layup, igniting the crowd, which was more of partisan crowd than in previous matchups between the two teams in this building.
Seemingly every play was going the Pacers’ way soon enough, as Stephenson was a dynamo of energy all over the court and Indiana made huge shots at big moments to extend its lead—including one by Watson, just to pour salt in the wound—en route to the Bulls facing a double-digit deficit heading into the game’s stretch run.
With Stephenson and George attacking the basket, West owning the glass and Hibbert’s defensive dominance persisting, the onslaught continued as the game came to a merciful end, as the dejected-looking Bulls’ rough start to the campaign didn’t cease and the triumphant, still-undefeated Pacers took the upper hand in the first matchup of the regular season.