Limping back to Chicago after a sound Christmas thrashing at the hands of the Spurs, the Bulls entered Monday having lost 9 of their last 12. The Pacers rolled into town clutching a slim .5 game lead for the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, and looked to take control of the season series in Chicago. All the makings of a classic, right?
Actually, no. In what’s become a recurring theme this season, this game was terrible. The Bulls blew a 16 point lead, squandered countless opportunities, executed poorly down the stretch, and won! Wait, what? The Bulls won! Indiana was equally bad for much of the game, and despite the best efforts of Aaron Brooks-- the Bulls took home this actually-kind-of-important game. Offensive rebounding, and some classic Dwyane Wade crunch time shenanigans helped get it done.
The Bulls got things started off on the right foot by going inside early and often. Fourteen of the Bulls’ first 19 points came in the paint, and were able to generate good looks inside with smart passing--that seemed more clever than their usual fare. They also clobbered the Pacers on the offensive boards early, with one sequence seeing Rajon Rondo snag 3 straight rebounds before finding Niko Mirotic in the corner for a three. Michael Carter-Williams made his much-heralded return to the Bulls lineup, and though he failed to convert on a series of sorry looking jump shots, made his presence felt with his length on the defensive end. Pacers' head coach Nate McMillan, and his extremely long necktie could do little more than look on glumly as the Bulls lead ballooned to 16, and it looked as if the Bulls may have actually had things under control for once.
They didn't. The third quarter was an abomination, which might be too kind of a word to use given the circumstances. The passing ceased, the shots stopped falling, and the offense devolved into a meaty slop, en route to a pathetic 12 point Chicago third quarter. They were able to keep their heads above the water due to the Pacers’ own incompetence, as well as occasional trips to the free throw line by Jimmy Butler, but there was nothing good going on here. The shot clock wound down to the waning seconds on most trips down the floor, and on the rare occasion the Bulls could generate an open shot--they missed.
In a Boxing Day miracle, former Bull and diminutive Pacers guard Aaron Brooks started to heat up. He made all manner of shots in the 2nd half, off the dribble threes, high arcing fadeaway shots over centers, you name it. Brooks finished with a season high 19 points on just 8 field goal attempts, but that wasn’t the only end of the floor he did his damage. In the most unlikely play of the night, he leapt into the air like Captain Planet to reject Robin Lopez at the rim, and came down to draw the foul on offense. A game that the Bulls once led by 16 very much hung in the balance due to…. Aaron Brooks. Stranger things have happened, but this had all the makings of a supreme Bulls disappointment as they crawled into the fourth quarter leading by just two points.
Chicago and Indiana entered the 4th quarter on Monday night ranked 28th and 27th in 4th quarter Net Rating respectively. So, the final quarter of this game was a war of attrition, and a whole lot of wondering “who sucks less?". Tonight, it was the Bulls... kind of. The poor offensive execution continued deep into the fourth. Out of a time out with 45 seconds to go, Paul George nailed a tough three to trim the Bulls’ lead to one, but Mirotic salvaged another awful possession with an extremely difficult step back jumper. It was the capper on what was perhaps his best game of the season, scoring 20 points and grabbing 7 rebounds (4 offensive).
The Pacers came back up the floor with a chance to tie, but Jimmy Butler squared up George brilliantly and forced an airball on a three-point attempt. Thaddeus Young corralled the rebound and got it back to Brooks, but in a truly “vintage” moment, Dwyane Wade shot the gap to steal an errant crosscourt pass and dunked to seal the game. Bulls win! Yay!
The Bulls didn’t do a whole lot to inspire confidence with their performance. However, they did get the win, and frankly, that’s all anyone could really ask for at this point. Chicago gets a day off before taking on the talent-deprived Nets, who just lost Jeremy Lin for the 2nd time this year to a hamstring strain. Hopefully, they can take this scrappy win and turn it into the start of something better.