A surprising fourth quarter comeback turned disappointing loss shuffled through all levels of emotions for the Indiana Pacers, who with perhaps a little more composure, could've walked away with the feel good win of the season and a 2-0 season series lead over the Chicago Bulls. But it was a big time three pointer by Jimmy Butler that would seal the 92-90 victory for the Bulls.
The Pacers had fought from behind for most of the night; an 11-0 run for the Bulls in the first and second quarter turned put the Pacers down 27-19, and aside from some pushes in the second, Chicago provided simply too much muscle for Indiana to overcome. Big plays swung the game for Chicago in the first half, a big dunk by Butler at the buzzer giving Chicago a healthy 47-35 advantage.
In the third, Indiana struggled getting shots, watching almost helplessly as Mike Dunleavy scored eight third quarter points late to push Chicago's advantage to 21 at 75-54. Even as Indiana fought back through the rest of the quarter, they were unable to break a 16-point wall, either by their own doing, or by an inability to get shots. It was all the Pacers could do to keep pace with Chicago, losing the third 34-30 and trailing by 16 heading into the final period.
Then in the fourth, the Bulls went ice cold as the Pacers, particularly Chris Copleand, began to heat up. Copeland began to bully Butler in the post, scoring 11 points in a four minute stretch where the Pacers exploded for a 20-0 run that turned their 17 point deficit into a three point 86-83 lead. With the momentum swirling in Indiana's favor halfway through the quarter, things began to slowly unravel for Indiana.
The Pacers had three turnovers in the next four minutes, going scoreless from the field in a stretch that was only helped by Chicago's continued ineptitude. Pau Gasol would cut the lead to one to snap a scoreless streak of nearly seven and a half minutes, totaling 17 consecutive missed shots. Copeland would score again to put Indiana back ahead by three.
Chicago managed to get to the line late, something they excelled at all night, hitting four crucial free throws to put them ahead by one. Lavoy Allen would respond with a big jumper, his only of the night moved Indiana back ahead by one, but it was Butler's big three pointer that would put Chicago up 92-90 with a minute remaining.
An offensive foul call on Copeland continued to waste opportunities for the Pacers, but Derrick Rose saw a potential dagger pop in and out. Luis Scola grabbed the rebound, but the officials failed to notice Frank Vogel signalling a timeout, giving the Pacers a timeout late, with just 0.5 seconds remaining. C.J. Watson's potential game winner fell short (and likely wouldn't have counted anyway), sealing the 92-90 victory for Chicago.
In a game Indiana really had no business being a part of at the end of the third quarter, the amount of missed opportunities proved rather daunting for a Pacers team that held Chicago to only 11 points. The comeback trail was mired slightly and often by poor free throw shooting, which became the single biggest deciding factor by the end of the night.
Indiana went just 13-21 on the night from the line, including an inexcusable 1-4 from the line in the fourth quarter. Chicago on the other hand was 29-33, giving them a 16 point advantage at the line, shooting 6-6 from the line in the fourth. Indiana's season long struggle at the line has been nothing short of inexcusable, and given the number of games Indiana's been in late and fallen short in, the lack of free throw attempts and the lack of ability to shoot a respectable number at the line has played its part in Indiana dropping back to 10 games under .500.
As well, the life Chris Copeland gave the Pacers with his huge fourth quarter play, including surprisingly effective post play against Jimmy Butler and a big three pointer, he took away with three late turnovers. Copeland had 17 points to lead Indiana and was the exact lift Indiana needed to put them in position to win the game, but those mistakes proved costly in the game's final minutes.
The bench unit as a whole came up big for Indiana in the fourth quarter, where Vogel rode them through the game's end. And aside from similar miscues to Copeland's, they all provided big shots that pushed Indiana into the lead. C.J. Miles had 11, hitting a fadeaway shot clock beating three. Luis Scola was in double figures with 10, finding a couple of big shots, though his woes at the line resulted in two of Indiana's fourth quarter free throw misses.
Lavoy Allen struggled with his jumper, but came up with a big one late to push Indiana up by three, recording four blocks, eight rebounds, and five assists in the process. The only real struggles came from C.J. Watson, who was just 1-7 from the floor with one of Indiana's late turnovers.
While going with the bench unit made the most sense, George Hill subbed in briefly for Miles, when given Hill's overall play on the night, may have made more sense to go with him over Watson down the stretch. Hill had 11 points on 4-11 shooting, including nine points in the third when frustration was mounting for the Pacers in how they felt the game was being called and their inability to come up with stops.
In the starting lineup, David West and Solomon Hill each reached 10, offering up some nice play early for the Pacers. Foul trouble once again hampered Roy Hibbert's time on the floor, which took away some positive play from him, scoring just six. Rodney Stuckey struggled defensively on the night himself, capping a poor offensive night for him as well, scoring five points and helping allow Mike Dunleavy to push Chicago's lead to 21 in the third.
Indiana failing to come away with a huge victory shouldn't dampen spirits too much, though it should make the team sick seeing all the opportunities they had to push their 20-0 run into stratospheric levels, had they not wasted six consecutive possessions after going up 86-83. But Indiana proved once again how small their margin for error is, and it bit them tonight when Butler put in his 27th point of the night.
The Pacers will have a second straight home game on Wednesday afternoon, a 3 p.m. Eastern tipoff against the Miami Heat on New Year's Eve. Like the Bulls, Indiana downed the Heat on their home floor, and like the Bulls are a vastly superior road team than they are when they play at home. It will also mark the return of Danny Granger to Indiana, who scored 21 points on 7-10 shooting in Miami's loss to Orlando tonight.