Sunday, 24 April 2011

Pacers live another game, thanks to referees?

So the Pacers win 89-94. But were the Bulls ever going to win this one?

It never seemed likely, even with Chicago clambering from an 18-point hole to be down by just 1 with 15 seconds to go. Indiana closed it out with free-throws to avoid elimination. At least until Tuesday evening back at the United Center where smart money says the Bulls finally put to bed what is by far the most competitive 1st-vs-8th match-up in recent times. The Bulls are 38-5 at home, and 16-4 on games immediately after losses.

Boozer had another tough night, (Image rights: NBA)
It was another typically slow start from Chicago which is becoming a worrying trend. Indiana came out with the energy expected of a team playing for hometown pride. The Bulls didn't do themselves any favors as they labored to just 33 first-half points on only 33% shooting. The Pacers had shut down Luol Deng and sent Carlos Boozer to the bench in early foul trouble.

The second half started no better for Chicago as the Pacers stretched the lead to 13 on an A.J Price three (2-4 on the night) that fired the split, raucous crowd to the belief that the hard fighting Pacers could finally get a win their play has deserved. Roy Hibbert came back from his Game 3 wilderness to post his best game of the series with 16pts and 10 rebounds. Jeff Foster had a clutch of huge offensive rebounds late (7 Off.) that effectively clinched the game for the Pacers as they went on to convert on 2nd-chance opportunities. Indiana did a good job all game of making the most of their limited rebounding talent, coming up with the majority of the important rebounds.

Derrick Rose was quiet as Indiana coach Frank Vogel stuck with the 2-man trap/double team strategy he began to employ in Game 3. Rose found himself too often trapped at the half-line and without an outlet pass, the Bulls had a staggering 14 Turnovers (9 in the first half) that gave up enough points that decided the game. This, along with the Bulls inability to break out and score easy points on fast-breaks ultimately lost the game when Chicago went down as much as 18 two minutes into the final period.

Rose did turn his ankle early in the first half and went to the locker room for a few minutes before re-emerging. Post-game he claimed the ankle was fine, just sprained, before he hobbled out of the press conference with a look of pain on his face sure to cause worry among Bulls fans and players alike. "They go as Derrick Rose goes" said Danny Granger before the playoffs began. How true this was as Rose shot his playoff-worst 6-22 and Chicago went out with a horrific 37.8% (31-82).

Despite being in a hole dug almost to China, Chicago somehow flipped that defensive switch to dominate the 4th quarter yet again. With 3:45 to go, Pacers still held a 16pt lead until Kyle Korver hit yet another big three to breathe life into a Bulls rally. Roy Hibbert sank two crucial free-throws before Chicago really got into their stride with an 8-0 run taking them within 7pts with 1:17 left to complete a tough sweep. Boozer and Rose had a pair of big buckets to cut the advantage to 3 as Indiana couldn't buy a score on an 11-2 run. Mike Dunleavy split two free-throws before a Noah 3-point-play cut the lead to one.

That would be as close as the Bulls got as Deng fouled quick with 14.1s and Granger made both foul shots. Bulls' coach Tom Thibodaeu asked for a play for a Rose 3, but the Pacers made a decent job in forcing Noah to break the play in turn forcing Carlos Boozer to hoist up his first 3-point attempt in 4 years for the tie (Boozer last made 3 was back in 2003). Noah afterward accepted a "mental mistake" in not calling a timeout when he got locked up in the corner on that final play.

Several thousand Bulls fans made
the 3-hr drive to Indiana (Image: NBA)
The Pacers have won the right to a 5th game, but have they spent all they have on earning it, for that's how it felt with their huge effort to win the 4th game. Chicago can rest easy knowing they have the chance to wrap it up at home, in front of 23,000 Bulls fans ready to see the backs of an intense series.


Referees often come under a harsh criticism in the playoffs, tonight was no different. In this series, the Bulls have averaged 31 free-throw attempts per game to Indiana's 20, a difference of 11. Frank Vogel has made his views well known; He feels the Pacers have been treated harshly by the referees as they "protect their star" in Derrick Rose.

Perhaps the league reacted, perhaps these referees were personally moved by his pleas. No matter the reason, a miraculous 20 free-throw swing took place on Saturday afternoon as this time Indiana took 34 foul shots to the Bulls 24. I'm sorry, but after the Tim Donaghy scandal, I simply cannot look at this as just a group of referees 'calling a game differently.' Call me bitter, but Rose is the prime example.

Game 1 he was 19-21 on free-throws. Game 2, 12-13 and Game 3 13-15. So how can it be that the Indiana defense has gone under such an incredible improvement that Rose only got 4 free-throws on Saturday, two of those on a "Clear Path" foul on a rare fast-break. Impressive improvement or incredibly sympathetic refereeing? Call it what you will.