It’s a simple lesson. Every child learns it.
If you keep playing with fire…you’re going to get burned.
Chicago finally got burned in Game 4. By repeatedly waiting until the final quarter — the final minutes actually — to play with all-out, winner-takes-all intensity, the Bulls have not only given Indiana life, the Pacers believe they can win this series. Maybe that they should have won it already.
Said Indiana coach Frank Vogel: “I’m still upset that it’s 1-3. We should be up in the series.”
That’s not just coach speak. All the Pacers feel that way.
Added A.J. Price: “Sometimes all it takes is one game to get a team over the hump. Hopefully this will be the game for us. In terms of schemes there was nothing different in our game plan. We just happened to be up a little more. This series could very easily be different. It could be 2-2, 3-1 us, anything you want to say. We’ve played them tough and I know if we finish games better we’ll have a chance to win games. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
As ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell points out, the Pacers are setting the tempo of this series. They’re the aggressors. They’re the ones playing lockdown defense, making hustle plays and winning battles for loose balls. And it’s Indy’s reserves, not Chicago’s Bench Mob, making a critical difference. Check out the plus-minus scores: Mike Dunleavy Jr. (+13), Price (+10), Jeff Foster (+5) and Josh McRoberts (+4) are making a much bigger impact than Taj Gibson (+3), Kyle Korver (0), C.J. Watson (-3), Omer Asik (-5), Ronnie Brewer (-7) or Kurt Thomas (-7).
The Bulls were the league’s best defensive team during the regular season. But the way these games are going, you’d think it had been the Pacers. Look at what Indy’s D did to Chi-town’s O yesterday: 37.8 percent shooting, 3-for-20 from downtown, 14 turnovers for 21 points going the other way, zero fast break points. The Bulls also gave up 15 offensive rebounds and 18 second chance points. And then, of course, there was Derrick Rose’s 6-for-22 performance on a sprained ankle.
Yes, the injury affected Rose, which is why he made attempted only four free throws after taking 49 in the first three games. I will give credit to Indiana’s defense, but Derrick wasn’t attacking the basket with his usual tenacity. Whether he physically couldn’t or was afraid of further injury has yet to be determined.
But Rose wasn’t giving any excuses after the game.
Said Rose: “A sprained ankle is going to slow you down a little bit, but all of my shots were on line. They were just short. No excuses. It’s the playoffs. I’ve sprained my ankle many times, you’ve just got to make shots.”
Anyway, the Bulls dug themselves a big hole, falling behind by as many as 18 points. They were still down by 16 points until Korver drilled a three-pointer with 2:38 remaining. And they were trailing by 13 until Carlos Boozer (15 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists) knocked down a pair of free throws with 1:54 to go.
Korver’s shot and Boozer’s freebies were part of a mega-rally by the Bulls that pulled them to within a single point with 15.3 seconds left. Of course, Chicago’s near-comeback was aided and abetted by a group choke job by the Pacers, who became content to hold onto the ball and either chuck up an awful shot or let the shot clock expire. Had the Pacers simply kept playing the way they had played all game, there probably wouldn’t have been a comeback.
But there was.
After the Bulls cut the deficit to a point, Luol Deng (16 points, 5-for-14, 3 rebounds) was forced to foul Danny Granger (24 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists), who converted both foul shots. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau called a 20-second timeout, after which the Bulls came out and ran what may have been the worst play known to man. Seriously, I wondered out loud afterward whether Vinny Del Negro had phoned it in.
Basically, Joakim Noah (21 points, 8-for-13, 14 rebounds) ended up holding onto the ball for far too long as Deng fought to get open. When it became clear the play was busted, the Bulls initiated a “panic set” that ended when Boozer — of all people — launched a three-point attempt from the baseline.
For perspective: In 569 regular season games, Boozer is 1-for-9 on threes. After Game 4, he is now 0-for-1 in 48 career playoff games. So, yeah, that was not the shot the Bulls wanted.
Said Noah: “I caught the ball at the elbow and I was supposed to set a back screen for Luol. They played it well, they denied the dribble hand-off. Really, it was a mental mistake. When you’re in that position, you’ve got to call timeout, so we learn from it.”
That’s cool. I’m glad they’ll learn from it. But when you’re one play away from pulling off your fourth straight fourth quarter comeback, I’m not sure clutch execution is the problem.
The fact that they have to keep coming back…that’s the problem.
Chicago’s offense has been terrible. Among this year’s playoff teams, the Bulls currently rank dead last in eFG% (43.4) and next to last in Turnover Percentage (15.3). When a team can’t shoot or take care of the basketball, well, that means pretty big trouble. Which is what the Bulls have been in every single game.
Every. Single. Game.
This isn’t funny anymore. This is no longer cute. Indiana’s “Little Engine That Could” act is starting to wear thin for Bulls fans who were expecting a lot better from their team. And do you know what they were expecting? For the Bulls to play the entire 48 minutes the way they’ve been playing in the final five of each game. It hasn’t happened yet.
When will it?
Said Noah: “You see what these games come down to. It’s nothing. It’s on us to…if we play the way we played in that fourth quarter, for 48 minutes, we’d win that ballgame. We’re excited. We’re excited about the opportunity to go back home.”
I’m glad the players are excited, because I’m sure not. I’m really nervous. Not that the Pacers are going to come back and win this series, although I can’t say I’m 100 percent confident the Bulls will win Game 5. I’m worried about what this means for the next series. The Bulls are playing sloppy, undisciplined basketball.
And, to be completely honest, Thibodeau’s coaching hasn’t been wowing me. He’s completely abandoned his rotations and his “final five minute” offense seems to center around setting screens for Korver or (pre-injury) launching Rose at the hoop like a guided missile.
This does not look like the Bulls team we followed for 82 regular season games.
But you know what? Maybe this wake-up call was needed. No, I’m not rationalizing, I swear. Heading into Game 4, the Bulls had won 12 games in a row and 24 of their last 26 overall. And, frankly, they compiled quite a few of those wins without playing their best basketball.
It’s flat out unrealistic to expect a team to win every game. The Bulls have been on an extremely successful extended run. Think about it: Yesterday was Chicago’s third loss since March 4. The team was due for a loss. It really was.
One of the key characteristics of these Bulls during the regular season was that they responded very well to a loss. Each loss seemed to refocus and rededicate them to all the little things that lead to wins. Making hustle plays and coming up with those 50-50 balls. Things like that.
Unless every single thing we know about this team was a lie, some sort of grand flim-flam, the Bulls are going to come out absolutely on fire in Game 5. That almost have to. For their confidence and for the confidence of their fans. To build some momentum heading into the second round. And, most importantly, so they can have a few extra days of rest to recover from a series that has pushed them far harder than anybody expected.