When the Bulls and Pacers get together these days, it usually isn't pretty. Things were no different Wednesday night in the first of four regular season tilts between the division rivals, but it was the Pacers who had that extra gear in the fourth quarter, pulling away late to a 97-80 victory.
The Pacers used a 10-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead, buoyed by two Lance Stephenson threes and some Luis Scola magic. Stephenson and Scola had been relatively quiet all game long, but they stepped up big when it counted. Scola made a killing knocking down open jumpers on pick-and-pop, and he also had a coast-to-coast layup after picking the pocket of Luol Deng.
From that point on, the Pacers' defense just shut the door, forcing numerous live-ball turnovers that led to easy baskets on the other end. While Derrick Rose looked a tad better, he was swallowed up in the second half, with Paul George drawing the main Rose assignment in the fourth quarter. George's length and athleticism are a major problem for Rose, and even when the former MVP finds himself, it will likely remain a problem.
Not to mention that even when Rose is able to break down the defense, Roy Hibbert is a brick wall under the hoop. Hibbert rejected Rose at the rim several times, with Rose actually getting the benefit of the doubt on one questionable call in the fourth quarter. In any case, the tandem of George and Hibbert is a defensive monster, so the Bulls will have to make adjustments going forward in order to overcome them.
When it was all said and done, the Pacers ended the game on a 30-11 run, turning a back-and-forth affair into a blow out. The Bulls managed just 18 points in the fourth quarter, which has been a disturbing trend in the early going.
George scored a game-high 21 points, although he did shoot just 6-of-19 thanks to some solid defense from Deng and the Bulls' interior. David West had 17 points and 13 rebounds after struggling early, while Stephenson finished with 15. C.J. Watson added 11 points in place of the injured George Hill, including a dagger three in the fourth quarter off a brilliant pass from George. Scola finished with 12.
For the Bulls, Rose had 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting. He once again had more turnovers (four) than assists (two), which has been par for the course this season. Deng had 17 points as well, but he shot just 6-of-18 and missed all three of his three-point attempts. The Bulls shot just 35.6 overall and 5-of-15 from three, although they did go to the line 27 times. Baby steps?
Adding to the ugliness, the Bulls turned the ball over 17 times, with six of those coming in the game-deciding fourth quarter (Pacers had 10 points off those turnovers). The Bulls also got smoked on the boards, giving up 17 offensive rebounds and losing the overall battle by 12. Not a recipe for success at all.
Rose actually was cookin' early, knocking down his first three shots, including a three-pointer and a couple from mid-range. Joakim Noah assisted on two of those baskets and four overall in the quarter, which helped stake the Bulls to an early lead.
The tide turned a bit when Rose went to the bench with early foul trouble, as the offense hit a rut and the Pacers began to knock down some shots. After a couple transition buckets put Indiana up eight, it looked like things were starting to slip away.
But the Bulls turned things right back around thanks to some strong work from Deng in the post against Stephenson as well as some excellent play from Taj Gibson. Deng did get the benefit of a few calls as the officials didn't really seem to know what the hell was going on for much of this game, but it was nice to see him be aggressive and go after the smaller Stephenson.
The Bulls' defense also began to lock down, giving up just two points over the first six-plus minutes of the second quarter. Some of that was aided by some woeful offense in general by the Pacers' second unit, and for a while it seemed like Stephenson was taking a wild shot nearly every time down the floor. With Indiana struggling, the Bulls opened the quarter on a 14-2 run to build a six-point lead. That lead would hold the rest of the half.
Naturally, the game swung right back in the Pacers' favor at the outset of the second half. After looking so good in the first half, Rose was a bit more sloppy in the third, throwing careless passes and getting beat by Watson on several possessions. The Bulls' offense stalled out, and on the other end, West woke up from his slumber and George added several big baskets that swung the momentum.
The Bulls looked on the verge of falling apart at the tail end of the third after a blown defensive coverage led to a wide open Donald Sloan corner three, but they closed an eight-point deficit to just one at the end of the quarter thanks to some hustle and a little luck. A Gibson offensive rebound led to a Kirk Hinrich three, and a circus shot by Deng essentially turned into a four-point play when Frank Vogel picked up a technical arguing the call.
The fourth quarter started harmlessly enough, with Nazr Mohammed even providing some stellar interior defense on a few possessions in a row. Tom Thibodeau stuck with his reserves for a bit longer than expected thanks to their passable play, and sadly, it was the starters who let the game get out of hand at the end. Yuck.