For a 1-8 matchup, the Bulls and Indiana Pacers provided plenty of drama, excitement and intensity. For Bulls fans, it was starting to become too close for comfort, though.
Tuesday night, Bulls fans didn't have much to sweat over, as the Bulls led wire-to-wire in a 116-89 rout of the Pacers in Game 5.
It was the series clinching victory, and the second time the Bulls have gotten past round one since 1998. The last time the Bulls did so was in 2007 when they swept the Miami Heat.
It wasn't much of a game from the beginning, as the Bulls never trailed on Tuesday. The Pacers didn't come out with the same intensity they had in Games 1 through 4, though it was more of the Bulls' early energy, something they haven't had the entire series.
The Bulls led 12-2 two and a half minutes into the first quarter; it was uncharted territory for the Bulls, as we've been use to seeing them trail, comeback and attempt to win in the final minutes.
The difference, at least early on, was the energy. The talent took over late, but it was the activity level from the Bulls that turned the tide in their favor Tuesday night. Joakim Noah, playing in front of his grandpa, gave the Bulls a major spark in the first quarter. He set the tone early, carrying the momentum from his 21-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 4.
Bulls fans have been so accustom to seeing Noah active and fearless, however, with his multiple injuries this season, those energy-filled moments from Noah haven't came often lately. On Tuesday, Noah began the game with plenty of spark and did a great job finishing around the basket.
Noah was plagued with foul trouble for the middle two quarters, but scored 10 points in the opening quarter, along with three rebounds, three assists and three blocks. That's the Noah Bulls fans know and love. He isn't an option offensively, but don't tell him, as he had a left-handed hook shot in the game, too.
All the Bulls need from Noah is energy, energy, energy. He's given them that in Games 4 and 5 -- it's awfully tough to beat the Bulls when Noah's motor is running like that.
Noah, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, was fantastic for the second consecutive game for the Bulls, but the same can't be said about Carlos Boozer.
Boozer averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds in the five-game series. Solid numbers on the surface, however, the Bulls brought in Boozer for low-post scoring, and while Boozer's had his moments, they've came few and far between. One issue with Boozer, as Tom Thibodeau has pointed out throughout the series, has been his knack of picking up early fouls. He averaged nearly four fouls during the series.
It's easy to see Thibodeau's point: It's difficult to get much of a rhythm when you're consistently battling foul trouble. However, NBA players play through foul trouble all the time; it shouldn't be an excuse for poor play, as Boozer shot 36 percent from the field during the series.
Whatever the deal is with Boozer, the Bulls have got to get him fixed because they won't get to where they want to -- the NBA Finals -- with Boozer struggling to stay in games, mentally and physically. A double-double is nice, but the Bulls will also need more of an offensive spark from Boozer, who finished with two points and five rebounds in Game 5. Somewhere close to his 19.3 points average before the All-Star break would be nice.
Tuesday's game was essentially won in quarters one and three. The Bulls were outscored by three in the second quarter but still went into halftime with a 54-46 lead. The Bulls shot 46 percent compared to the Pacers' 38 percent shooting; the Bulls out-rebounded the Pacers 19-17; and lastly, the Pacers had 10 first half turnovers. Yet they only trailed by eight.
If I'm Frank Vogel, I'll take that.
The Bulls, however, started the second half strong, taking a 59-46 lead with 10:45 left in the third quarter and 61-50 two minutes later. Similar to the first half, the Pacers battled back, answering the Bulls run.
Thanks to a 7-0 run, the Pacers pulled to within 61-57 with 6:16 left in the quarter. Derrick Rose picked up his fourth personal foul with 9:03 left with the Bulls ahead 59-48. When LeBron James is on the bench in foul trouble, the Heat still have Dwyane Wade to run the offense and make things happen. The Bulls don't have that type of luxury, as Rose handles the ball 90 percent of the time.
Thibodeau felt the game slipping away, and brought back Rose with four fouls. It was a risky move, but one that had to be made with the Bulls lead cut down to four midway through the third quarter with the momentum in the Pacers favor.
"We felt like it was going the wrong way," coach Thibodeau said to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune of
inserting Rose with four fouls. "He hit big shots. He basically took
over the game."
It definitely worked out for Thibodeau's Bulls.
Rose started the game leaving fans wondering, "What sprained ankle?" He scored 11 of his 13 first half points in the first quarter -- it was just the start Rose needed to prove to the Pacers he's OK and won't be hobbled up by injury. You could tell he was wincing a bit early in the game and had a slight limp walking around, but he certainly didn't have one running.
He told reporters after the game that his ankle was fine. The way he played, it's tough to doubt him.
Rose, who finished with 25 points and six assists, added 12 more points in the third quarter. The soon-to-be MVP began the game 0-for-4 from the three-point line, but found a groove in the third quarter as he knocked down three of them in a three minute span. All these three's could get confusing.
Even Keith Bogans began getting in on the act. He scored 15 points on 5-for-7 on three's; as Stacey King says, all Bogans has to do is keep defenses honest. Bogans won't hit five three-pointers often, but just giving the Bulls one or two per game should be enough to do just as King says.
The Bulls shot 14-for-31 on three-pointers as a team -- 31 might be too many attempts, but when they're falling, why not?
After letting the Pacers get to within four points, the Bulls went on a total barrage in the third quarter, outscoring the Pacers 23-8 during the final 5:52. For the first time in the series, the Bulls held total control of the game. It all started in the first quarter and the energy they began the game with.
The Pacers began to lose their top as Josh McRoberts was ejected in the third quarter for throwing an elbow at Noah while the two were fighting for positioning. McRoberts got away with attempting to elbow Rose in Game 4; the referees finally caught him in Game 5.
After the Pacers made their little run in the third quarter, the Bulls answered right back. That's what championship teams do.
"We came out with a lot of intensity and fire," Luol Deng said. "That's
something we haven't done. Indiana throughout the season has come out
more aggressive. We made a point to change that."
Although quietly, Deng always displays intensity and fire for the Bulls. He set the tone early in the series, sticking up for the physical hits on Rose, and energized the crowd in the process. Tuesday, Deng did everything for the Bulls. He had 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He is, as Thibodeau calls him, the "glue" to the Bulls.
Danny Granger had 20 points to lead the Pacers in the final game of their season, however, Deng played steady defense on him the entire series. Granger averaged nearly 22 points but was held to 35 percent shooting on three-pointers.
It was interesting to see Granger continue to jaw at Deng once the game ended as all the players and coaches exchanged pleasantries. How fitting: Granger began the series talking smack, and finished it like that, too.
The Bulls finally broke out from their playoff slump and it took five games to finish off the Pacers. Give credit to the Pacers, they gave the Bulls troubles during this series and showed some of the Bulls' weaknesses. The Bulls certainly didn't play their best basketball, but still, they'll be in round number two. And that's all that matters.
They Bulls will play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the winner of the Orlando Magic-Atlanta Hawks series on Monday, May 8th. The Hawks currently lead the series 3-2 and will play Game 6 in Atlanta on Thursday.
Both teams have flaws, and as long as the Bulls play like they did Tuesday, eliminating either team shouldn't much an issue.
They still face questions heading into the second round and, potentially, the Eastern Conference Finals, but getting round one out of the way with days to rest is a positive. Rose will get a chance to rest his ankle and the Bulls will get more time to make adjustments. The man they call Thibs will make sure of that.
"I'm speechless right now," Rose said. "I really can't believe it. It's a
great accomplishment. I'm happy for my teammates and my coaching
Chicago's happy, too. But there's still a few more steps to climb. Getting past round one against a 37-win Pacers team was only the first step.