INDIANAPOLIS — The Pacers and Bulls are on opposite ends of the Eastern Conference playoff spectrum, but both seem to be facing the same battle each night: playing without their perimeter All-Stars. There’s no Paul George for Indiana, while Chicago has lost both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to injury.
Chicago has been here before with Rose, and the Pacers might as well call themselves experts considering the amount of injuries they’ve endured this season. Yet that didn’t stop them from recapturing the physical brand of basketball that is on display when the two meet.
After a back-and-forth contest for three quarters, the Pacers used a strong final period to bury the Bulls, 98-84, for their fourth victory in a row. Chicago managed just 18 points in the fourth on 4-of-17 shooting from the field, including 0-of-6 from three. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau pointed to the slow start to open the quarter, but Indiana’s defense clearly kicked up a notch, forcing the Bulls to rush passes and send others into the stands.
Indiana’s perimeter players attacked the back side of Chicago’s strong size zone defense and found success — a scheme that Thibodeau has made famous in the NBA since his time as an assistant with the Boston Celtics.
Solomon Hill led all Pacers with 16 points, winning his individual battle against Chicago’s Tony Snell, a thinner defender. Rodney Stuckey added another 12, while C.J. Watson pitched in 11. It was the bench that helped the Pacers pull away from the Bulls in the deciding quarter.
“The balance of their team is so strong,” Thibodeau said of the Pacers. “When they go to the bench, they don’t drop off.”
The Pacers took advantage early by jumping out to a quick lead. Chicago was on the second night of a back-to-back and Thibodeau mentioned his team’s slow start to the game afterwards. George Hill and David West did much of what has fueled the Pacers recent play, working the two-man game to penetrate the Bulls’ defense.
Hill finished with just seven points, but led the team with six assists. West scored 10 points and grabbed as many rebounds, though his passing from the high post to cutters is what jump-started the offense. He finished with five assists.
Chicago was able to close down the lead through the second quarter and into the third with a combination of their bench and crisper ball movement from their starters. Rookie Doug McDermott scored a career-high 16 points on 8-of-17 shooting. McDermott took advantage of Damjan Rudez, attacking him off the bounce. Chicago’s other rookie forward, Nikola Mirotic, struggled from the floor, but his threat of outside shooting pulled Indiana bigs away from the hoop, allowing driving lanes for McDermott and other Bulls.
Pau Gasol led Chicago with 18 points on 17 shots.
Both offenses bogged down in the fourth quarter as the physicality kicked up. Watson and Kirk Hinrich picked up a technical foul each after a skirmish between the two, Joakim Noah provided his usual hard, sometimes illegal, screens, and West has never met a player he didn’t want to ram his shoulder into.
Ian Mahinmi scored 14 points and pulled in 11 rebounds off the bench for the Pacers and was excellent on both ends in the fourth quarter. Even his free-throw shooting was clicking when Chicago turned to fouling him late to try and get back into the game. Mahinmi finished 6-of-10 from the line and his 14 points ties the most he’s scored while wearing a Pacers uniform.
Both teams exit Friday’s game with a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs — the Bulls sit comfortably in second as they await the return of both Rose and Butler. The Pacers moved back into the eighth seed by a half a game. We’ll see how long that lasts, but the recent stretch of games suggest this team is playoff bound compared to the opposition that are chasing the same spots.
Like Chicago, the wait for George continues.