Yesterday – after learning of Frank Vogel’s confident claim that his team could win the series if it won Game 5, though down 3-1 – I sided with Volel, so to speak, reasoning that this series had been much closer thus far than the 3-0 start would indicate, pointing to three trends that had manifested themselves thus far in the series, and hence reasons the Pacers could keep things competitive.
Those trends were: the narrow scoring margin (only -10 over four games, an average margin of only 2.5 points per contest); the fact that Indiana held the largest lead in each game despite their three losses, including leads in each fourth quarter; and the fact that Derrick Rose’s injury might have kept him from getting to the line and into the paint as he had in the first three games.
All of those looked to be promising omens toward the Pacers’ ability to keep this game close and steal a road win to lengthen the series. And then the game started. Chicago got off to a better start than they had in any of the other games, and were particularly ignited by several brilliant plays from Joakim Noah on both ends of the court. It was the game’s first play, however, that most foreshadowed how things would unfold.
After the Bulls won the tip, Indiana pressured the ball in Chicago’s back-court. The Bulls made two quick passes and found Keith Bogans on the wing, who pulled up for a three ball that made the net dance. Those first three points secured a lead that the Bulls would never relinquish, and came in a fashion that the Bulls would repeat 13 times. That fashion – a quick pass followed by a made spot-up jumper, in this and many other cases a three-pointer – would prove to be the primary difference that turned this game into a blowout when the others had been so close.
In the first four games of this series, Chicago shot a combined 23 – 74 for 31% from behind the arc and 127-319 for 39% overall. In a word, they shot poorly; in a harsher word, they shot awfully. It the Bulls’ shooting woes, partially a credit to the Pacers’ defensive attention and strategy, that allowed Indiana to stay close in each game, despite decided advantages in other departments – not necessarily the same advantages in the same game – including rebounds, free-throws, and assists. As long as the Pacers had kept the Bulls from shooting well, from the field, they were able to overcome their other deficiencies to have a chance to win.
Last night in Game 5, though, the Bulls shot 14 – 31 for 45% from deep, as well as 26-52 for 50% on 2-pointers. They didn’t take drastically more shots in this game (83 compared to 82, 83, 72, and 82 in the first four games); they simply made more of them. The shot mix, though, did play a part, as they took 11 more three pointers than the 20 they took in three of the other four games, and going 6-13 from 3 in the 3rd quarter when the Pacers were trying to make a run essentially put the game out of reach.
The crisp pass we alluded to earlier was a subtle ingredient in all of those made field goals, as the 27 assists the Bulls had were a high for either team in the series. They moved the ball well inside and on the perimeter, and were decisive on the catch, as the shooters didn’t waste time putting up shots once they received the ball in an open position. I would argue that the Pacers didn’t do an overly poor job of closing out on those shooters, or even rotating to the ball inside. The Bulls were just a bit sharper and a bit more fortunate when spotting up from outside.
That is not to say that Indiana was helpless. In each previous game, the Pacers had overcome disadvantages in the areas mentioned above – rebounds (both offensive and defense), assists, free-throws, even poor – by taking care of the ball, limiting their turnovers to 11.25 per game. Last night, however, the Pacers coughed up the ball a series-high 20 times, limiting themselves to 9 less field goal attempts over the course of the game than the Bulls. It had been their low-error attack that gave their efforts to mitigate Chicago’s advantages. Indiana’s fight was still there, and they made several pushes to shrink the lead and try to stretch the series. But along with Chicago’s suddenly-found accuracy, their own turnovers proved to be too much to overcome, and, hence, the outcome was a convincing victory on the part of the Bulls, closing the series in a quick 5 games.
The Pacers faced long odds to win this series, even at the outset; their 0-3 start made those odds even longer. The 27 point margin in this 116-89 triumph by the Bulls, however, skews what was otherwise a very competitive first-round series.