When a team has to work new players into the rotation, it usually helps to do it against an inferior opponent, particularly if that opponent is going through hard times. And so the Bulls’ matchup against the Pacers should have been the perfect opportunity to mix Brad Miller, John Salmons and Tim Thomas into Vinny Del Negro’s magic sauce. After all, Indy is a solid sub-.500 team (with a 23-34 record coming in), and they were playing without Danny Granger (their best player and the league’s sixth leading scorer) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (who means more to the Pacers than a lot of people realize).
It was a game the Bulls should have won, particularly considering their spirited win over the Nuggets on Friday night. But, of course, they did not, losing 98-91 at Conseco Field House.
So…what happened? Well, basically, it was the same old story. Troy Murphy (27 points, 14 rebounds) joined the growing list of not-so-great big men (along with Anderson Varejao, Joel Przybilla, Nick Collison, Zaza Pachulia, et al.) who have notched their season-high in scoring against the welcome mat that is Chicago’s defense. The Bulls also once again failed to contain an opposing guard: T.J. Ford (19 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) scored 9 huge points in the final four minutes, which pretty much sealed the Bulls’ fate.
In fact, let’s take a closer look at what T.J. did: With 3:56 remaining, Ford hit a 27-foot three-pointer to put the Pacers up 87-84; with 1:58 left, Ford hit a 19-footer to put Indy ahead 91-88; at the 1:23 mark, Ford hit from nine feet out to make it 93-88; and with 1:08 left Ford dunked to make it 95-88, effectively putting the game out of reach. And it’s not like Ford was doing anything special. Three of those buckets came off simple pick-and-roll plays.
Chicago’s problems weren’t limited to the defensive end, either. Their field goal percentage went south in the second half — and they hit only 27 percent in the fourth — mostly because the game was an outside brick-a-thon: 64 of their 79 shot attempts were jumpers, and they scored only 14 points in that big rectangle known as “The Paint.” And yes, that’s the fewest by a Pacers opponent this season. It’s a little bit hard to understand Chicago’s inability to score against and Indiana team that allows almost 107 PPG, fourth-worst in the league behind the Warriors, Kings and Knicks. Worse yet, Chicago’s “clutch offense” (prepare to be very not surprised here) was Ben Gordon jacking it up from the perimeter. He was 0-for-4 in the final 1:39, missing from 25, 23, 16 and 26 feet.
That was sort of the story of Ben’s second half. Gordon scored 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting in the first two quarters, then only 6 points on 3-for-9 in the third and fourth. Speaking of disappearing acts, where exactly was Derrick Rose? He had a game-high 8 assists but scored only 3 points on 1-for-9 shooting and played the fewest minutes of any starter (28). Is it just me, or does it seem like Vinny’s been keeping Derrick on a pretty short leash lately?
Okay, so how’d the new guys do. Not bad, I suppose. Salmons scored 12 points (4-for-8) in 25 minutes, Miller grabbed 10 boards in 20 minutes and Thomas scored 5 points (2-for-4) in eight minutes. More telling, though, might be their plus-minus scores. Thomas (+12), Miller (+9) and Salmons (+7) had the only positive scores on the team. That was mostly because they were all on the floor together as the Bulls were scrambling back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit. Still, I couldn’t help but notice several miscues and some general confusion when those guys were on the court, particularly in the final few minutes. (Like when Miller didn’t rotate correctly on Ford’s game-deciding dunk.) That should change in the near future. Hopefully.
It was a bummer of a loss. And, to make matters worse, Milwaukee beat Denver today, which puts the Bulls a full game behind the Bucks for the East’s last playoff spot. And next up is (gulp) Orlando on Tuesday. If Troy Murphy lit us up, what’s Dwight Howard going to do…?
Stat of the game: Chicago barely lost the rebounding battle 49-46, but the Pacers grabbed 17 offensive boards. In fact, Murphy alone equaled the offensive rebounding output of Chicago’s starting frontcourt of Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Luol Deng. That was a backbreaker.