In my preview post, I stated that the outlook for this game was grim, mostly because the Bulls are a bad road team (now 12-27) and they most likely would be — and in fact were — without John Salmons, who was averaging 21.3 PPG on 50 percent shooting this month before he strained his left groin. That cost Vinny Del Negro 1/7th of his seven-man rotation and forced him to get 30 minutes out of Tim Thomas and his cranky back. All that felt, to me, like a recipe for disaster.
So…how am I supposed to regard tonight’s 107-105 setback in Indianapolis? Plenty of things went right. The Bulls shot almost 52 percent from the field. They held their own on the boards, thanks to a career-high 11 rebounds from Derrick Rose. Speaking of which, Derrick scored a team-high 24 points on 12-for-21 shooting and dished out 6 assists. Kirk Hinrich came within a stone’s throw of a triple-double (20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists), plus he nailed eight of his 13 shot attempts (including two out of three from downtown). Tyrus chipped in with 20 points while going 7-for-10. (Of course, his three misses were on jumpers from 17, 19 and 20 feet out. And, astonishingly, he grabbed only one rebound for the game.) Brad Miller was once again strong off the bench (14 points, 5 boards and a team-high 8 assists). Tim Thomas even chipped in with 11 points (4-for-6) and 5 rebounds.
But, honestly, the Pacers don’t play defense, so I fully expect anybody facing them to pad their stats a little. Or a lot. No, just like in Saturday’s game against them at the United Center, the problem wasn’t offense. It was defense. Indiana shot 50 percent. They forced turnovers (15) and ran out for easy baskets in transition, outscoring the Bulls 29-11 in fast break points. The Pacers also racked up 60 points in the paint (to Chicago’s 40), thanks to nine dunks and 17 layups. And, in my estimation, those are unacceptable numbers to give up by a team fighting for playoff positioning.
Yet, despite the lack of warm bodies and their defensive shortcomings, the Bulls somehow managed to find themselves up by eight points (99-91) with about five minutes left in the fourth. They were still up by five (103-98) with about three and a half to go when, to put it frankly, they began to play with two hands around their throats. Rose missed a short jumper. Hinrich drew a foul and then bonked both free throws. Rose had a layup stuffed by T.J. Ford. Hinrich blew a layup. Ben Gordon — who shot only 5-for-18 and finished with more fouls and turnovers (5) than rebounds and assists (4) — threw a bad pass that was stolen by Troy Murphy (who returned from injury to torment the Bulls with 15 points and 12 rebounds). Chicago committed a 24-second violation on their next trip.
After that all that slop, the Bulls found themselves down 105-103 with less than a minute left. Gordon finally ended the drought by drilling a 17-footer to tie the score. Murphy then missed a 20-footer at the other end, but Indiana corralled the rebound and called timeout with 26 ticks left on the clock. That bothered me more than all the misses…the fact that, with the game on the line, the Bulls couldn’t secure that one critical rebound. (And it wasn’t the only one. Danny Granger, who scored a game-high 31 points nabbed an offensive board and put it in the basket at the 1:25 mark.)
Coming out of the timeout, Indy managed to eat up most of the clock before T.J. Ford — the same guy who killed the Bulls the last time they played in Conseco Field House — shook Rose and knocked down a clutch jumper from 10 feet out to put the Pacer up 107-105. Said Rose: “He made a fallaway jump shot. That’s what you want people to take at the end.” Yes, I suppose he’s right…but it would be preferable if the shot was further out. And while Derrick did a decent job of contesting the attempt, Ford was still able to slice his way into the paint and more or less get the shot he wanted. If there’s one knock on Rose at this stage of his young career, it’s his continuing inability to stay in front of his man.
Anyway, that left Chicago with about three seconds to get a final shot, and even if you didn’t watch the game, I’m sure you know what happened: Ben Gordon launched a three from 26 feet out that didn’t go in, mostly because Granger — who’s six feet, nine inches tall — switched out and pressured the shot. Game over.
All in all, a valiant effort for an understaffed team. But it once again showcased the team’s inadequate play on the road (particularly on the defensive end) and their inability to pull out close games down the stretch. This team has made a lot of progress, and a healthy John Salmons might very well have changed the outcome. But, you know, the more things change…the more they don’t.