From the opening tip of Saturday’s Game 1 between the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers, one game kept flashing through my mind as the seconds ticked by.
For the entirety of the Bulls 104-99 victory, shades of their first-round war with the Boston Celtics two years ago persisted.
In one corner, an anointed Eastern Conference alpha dog with a ton of swagger, boatloads of momentum and tons to prove.
In the other, a gutty and fearless band of confident ballhawks without a care in the world and without a thing to lose.
On Saturday, for a time, the Bulls saw how the other half lives. Granted the Celtics were on a quest to defend the title that year and this group of Bulls have still yet to win a single playoff series. Still in all, the similarities got downright eerie just shy of the 4-minute mark in the 4th quarter when Tyler Hansbrough unveiled his best Joakim Noah-on-Paul Pierce impersonation, this time with Carlos Boozer filling in for Pierce.
The most glaring difference, of course, was that mos imperative of statistics, the final score. The Bulls were able to put away the overachieving 8th-seeded Pacers to seize a 1-0 lead in the series.
For the entirety of the game, the Bulls, fresh off a dominant 62-20 regular season campaign, looked overwhelmed by the moment. Everyone from Luol Deng to Carlos Boozer to Kyle Korver seemed unwilling make anything resembling a definitive basketball maneuver, leaving the Bulls faced with a 10-point deficit late in the final period.
It was about that time that the soon-to-be MVP, Derrick Rose, did his Derrick Rose…thing. A few slashing layups and one kick-out feed leading to a wide-open Korver trey later, the Bulls had snapped out of their 3-plus quarter funk to secure the win.
While Rose (39 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks) dazzled down the stretch, as he’s done all year, Bulls fans have to be concerned with his 0-9 performance from behind the arc and his general hesitance to shoot jumpers all afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Pacers essentially had the game of their collective life for the majority of Game 1. Danny Granger and Hansbrough had 24 and 22 points, respectively and seemed to be shooting a ping pong ball into a hula hoop for long stretches of the second half. Darren Collison went toe-to-toe with Rose for most of the first half, totaling 15 points, but cooled considerably after intermission, scoring just two points to end with 17.
The game was not without some heated exchanges. Rose took issue with what looked to a be clean hard Jeff Foster foul in the first quarter, which led to some heated jaw-jacking between the parties. Then, with 28 seconds left in the third quarter, the Bulls chief enforcer, Kurt Thomas, floored Hansbrough out with a stray elbow as the UNC product again showed his propensity for getting laid out.
What seemed like a momentum-killer for the Bulls quickly turned fortuitous when Deng (18 points, 10 rebounds) was T’d up at the 4:52 mark of the 4th quarter after coming to ROse’s aid following another hard foul. Deng mixed it up with Hansbrough and Granger, leading to the technical. Collison proceeded to miss the freebie as Deng gamely implored the sold-out United Center to make themselves heard, repeatedly raising his arms over his head urging on the raucous cheers.
Outside of Rose, the real hero of the game may have been Noah. As is traditionally the case, his stats–10 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks–portray just a portion of the story. The team’s most emotional player had been in a bit of funk in recent weeks since returning from an ankle sprain, but the Saturday’s capacity crowd was treated to a vintage Noah performance: hustle plays, aggressive rebounding and an abundance of passion and swagger.
When it was all over, it certainly felt as if the Pacers had given everything they had on a night when the Bulls looked sluggish and out of sorts, and it still was not enough.
I don’t need to remind you that even though the rugged young guns bested the behemoths in Boston in Game 1 two years ago, the Celtics eventually advanced. The 2011 Bulls, now squarely with the crosshairs on their backs, snuffed out the underdog Pacers’ effort to gain some traction and hope to avoid a similar seven-game affair this time around.