It took five games between the top-seeded Chicago Bulls and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers, but it finally became abundantly clear which was the better team Tuesday night.
With three less than inspiring wins and one failed comeback attempt to their credit, the Bulls broke through and delivered their most convincing performance so far in the 2011 playoffs with a 116-89 Game 5 thrashing of the overmatched Pacers.
Even in an eventual rout, though, Frank Vogel’s Indiana squad showed the considerable mettle it had displayed in Games 1-4. Trailing by double digits for much of the first two-plus quarters, an 11-2 run cut the deficit to 61-57 with 6:13 left in the third quarter.
It was at that exact moment that the Bulls decided they had had enough of the Pacers. They answered Indiana’s mini-run by finishing the quarter on a 23-8 rip, highlighted by Derrick Rose, who hit two momentum-swinging 3-pointers which bookended a thunderous block on Pacers Center Roy Hibbert. Rose would not have even been on the floor had Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau called his number even as the would-be MVP sat with 4 fouls. Rose finished with 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting, six assists, two steals, and two blocks all while playing on a sketchy left ankle which he sprained in the Bulls’ Game 4 loss.
Foul trouble was a prevalent theme for the Bulls Tuesday, as Rose, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer each had three fouls at halftime. Rose picked up his fifth not even a minute into the fourth quarter and headed to the bench, but strong reserve play enabled Chicago to close the door without having to subject Rose to one more minute of floor time.
Part of the reason the Bulls were able to weather the storm of late foul trouble was, for the first time in the series, they got off to a solid start. The catalyst for the Bulls 36-point first quarter was unquestionably Noah, who was playing in front of his 72-year-old Cameroonian grandfather for the first time as a professional. In the first period, Noah tallied 10 points, three rebounds, three assists, three blocks, two personal fouls, one technical foul, and two lengthy marches into the first three rows during a dead ball. He only finished with 14 points and eight boards, but he helped set an intense tone from the outset that Chicago lacked for most of Games 1-4.
Noah’s pesky behavior was typified by a fortuitous exchange late in the third quarter. Noah clearly threw an elbow in the face of Pacers forward Josh McRoberts while jockeying for a rebound, leading McRoberts to retaliate with a wild elbow shot of his own. Referee Danny Crawford missed Noah’s instigation, but caught McRoberts in the act and promptly tossed him from the game, much to the delight of the capacity United Center crowd.
For the Pacers, they simply lacked the firepower to keep up with the suddenly motivated Bulls. Danny Granger led the way with 20 points and six rebounds, but no other Pacer scored more than 15 points.
Luol Deng had the best all-around night for the Bulls from a statistical perspective, totaling 24 points, seven assists, six rebounds, three steals, and a block, doing most of his damage in the fourth quarter while Rose rested. The Bulls’ biggest blessing came from Keith Bogans, who–in addition to giving his usual stalwart defensive effort–sank five of his seven 3-point attempts to finish with 15 points.
The Bulls now await the winner of the series between the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, which was pushed to a sixth game on Tuesday with the Magic’s 101-76 blowout win. Atlanta leads that series 3-2.
Chicago will likely be walking tall after closing out the Pacers with such a convincing effort, but one cause for concern as the opponents only get stronger has to be Boozer’s perplexing performance. The team’s marquee free-agent prize this past offseason, Boozer was bafflingly ineffective for most of the Indiana series. Never was this assessment truer than Tuesday night, when Boozer went 1-for-5 from the field for two points in just 16 minutes. He was hampered by foul trouble, but made the very least of his limited floor time with one unwise basketball decision after another. Following the game, several media outlets reported that Boozer suffered a toe injury during the second quarter. Though his play has been far below what he is capable of, the Bulls can ill afford another extended absence from their injury-prone forward.
Tags: Basketball, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, NBA Playoffs