To say last night's loss to the Denver Nuggets was deflating is a bit of an understatement. Last night felt like more than a loss; it felt as if the Indiana Pacers had been exposed. Not so much by what the Nuggets did, but rather the idea that at some point the talent level and injuries were going to catch up to the Pacers, and their early season "success" of hard work putting them in position to win games was going to be less and less frequent so long as Indiana's heavy hitters remained sidelined.
So to see the Pacers bounce back the way they did tonight was nothing short of surprising. Not only did Indiana completely impose their will on the Chicago Bulls, but they did it on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, at the end of eight games in 12 days. Frank Vogel wanted the Pacers to play "pissed off" tonight, and there was nothing in Indiana's demeanor and play to suggest they didn't.
The Pacers led nearly the entire way, moving into the lead 12-10 early in the first quarter and never handing the lead back over to the Bulls, though Chicago certainly had pushes to force Indiana's hand. The Pacers simply had all the answers for every Bulls push tonight. Not only was Indiana impressive over 48 minutes, they played well in each 12 minute quarter as well, not allowing the Bulls to win a single quarter in tonight's game.
The lead swelled to 17 halfway through the fourth quarter, with Indiana leading 88-71, but an untimely drought allowed the Bulls to rattle of a 10-0 run to trim the lead to seven. The Pacers had gone scoreless for four and a half minutes before Chris Copeland put in a layup followed by a Solomon Hill three pointer with under 90 seconds to go to put the Pacers back up by 12 as they would go on to win 99-90.
Indiana wrapped up the game shooting 48%, the drought in the fourth dropping their total from what was over 50% for much of the night, also controlling the glass for a 46-34 advantage. For whatever effort and lack of execution Indiana fell short of last night, they brought tonight in spades. The Pacers also had a big advantage in points off turnovers, topping Chicago 23-14.
The total team effort of the Pacers tonight to blanket the Bulls was set into motion by early and often contributions from Luis Scola, who had maybe his best game as a Pacer with a 10-12 shooting night leading to 21 points that became a double double with 11 rebounds. Scola's jumper was lethal all night, but so to was his ability to fight for rebounds, causing Chicago's front line problems all night.
The Bulls front line has generally proven to be an advantage against the Pacers, especially with regards to Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, but the two combined for just nine points. Noah's defense offered up nothing against Scola and Gibson was uncharacteristically choked out by Lavoy Allen, who held his own in a big way against one of Chicago's biggest X-factors.
Roy Hibbert also did a tremendous job defending Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, but was held to a tough 4-15 shooting night. Hibbert set the tone early in the matchup with a pair of blocks on Gasol in back-to-back plays. Hibbert had a solid all around game despite a poor shooting night of his own, scoring eight points with seven boards, five assists, and three blocks.
Solomon Hill continues to impress, coming up with 21 points and 12 rebounds. The progress of Hill over the course of the season has been nothing short of impressive, especially considering the types of plays he's proven capable of coming up with. A.J. Price as well had another big night, scoring 21 points on 7-11 shooting. While Price led Indiana in scoring last night, his numbers proved empty with almost all of them coming with the game well out of reach.
Tonight, however, Price was a catalyst in pushing Indiana's lead to 17 points in the fourth quarter, hitting a pair of three pointers and scoring 11 points in the final 13 minutes to push Indiana towards the win. Price's 10 day contract expires tomorrow, but with a pair of 20-point outings (in wins no less), it would be a bit of a surprise if Indiana went in another direction in exercising the hardship.
Indiana's defense was back to form tonight as well. While Chicago wrapped up with 90 points, Indiana had held the Bulls to just 71 points through 42 minutes of action, a flurry of late points coming with extra possessions due to fouls and the sort, but the Pacers deserve all the credit for completely outclassing the Bulls tonight in Chicago. Jimmy Butler had a career best 32 points, but he was the only player on the Bulls tonight who made any notable impact on the game.
While outlets like Grantland want to make Oklahoma City the league's only woe is me hardship exception story, the Pacers have simply gone to work this week, defeating the top seed in the East twice on the road en route to a 3-1 record to move to 4-7 overall. Things may remain relatively bleak for the Pacers in the grand scheme of things, but in between hoping for losses and a great draft pick, the team's play has been refreshing. It's refreshing seeing the Pacers play with a chip again, to see them play with the hunger they had lost last spring.
All the while, Frank Vogel has gotten absolutely everything out of this group and yet still has them improving. Following this impressive road win over the Bulls, the Pacers will get a well deserved few days off as they gear up for Lance Stephenson and the Charlotte Hornets, who will visit Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday.