The Indiana Pacers were right there.
The No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, the team nobody believed could hang with the first-seeded Chicago Bulls in this first-round NBA playoff series, did just that Saturday at United Center.
The Pacers just couldn’t finish the deal, falling 104-99 after allowing the Bulls to go on a 16-1 run in the final 3:38.
By Drew Allen
So ends the first playoff game for this young team. However, the heartbreaking ending is not all to come out of Game 1 for the Pacers. They did play well.
Despite surrendering 39 points from prospective NBA MVP Derrick Rose, Indiana did a fine job taking away the Bulls’ other weapons and put forward Carlos Boozer in foul trouble early. Danny Granger and Tyler Hansbrough performed brilliantly in the second half and finished with 24 and 22 points, respectively. Darren Collison matched Rose point-for-point for much of the contest, notching 17 points from the top of the key. Roy Hibbert made plenty of noise posting up on Joakim Noah, scoring 11 points and pulling down eight rebounds.
Indeed, Indiana appeared on its way to securing a huge and shocking upset win in Chicago to open the series. Hansbrough’s breakaway dunk and free throw gave the team a 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play.
But the final 3:38. That’s what the Pacers still appear to be missing.
If Indiana is to rebound emotionally from such a gut-wrenching loss, that final 3:38 can’t happen again. The Pacers have to find a way to close out the game, and they can attempt to do so in a number of ways when they take the floor tonight in Game 2.
- Attack the rim. Granger missed two shots down the stretch; one was a 3-point attempt, and the other was a pull-up shot from the free-throw line. Collison, who had penetrated with success all game long, settled and missed a jumper. This was a visible problem under former coach Jim O’Brien, and the team’s two leading scorers this season somehow relapsed in the biggest game in which either has played. If Granger and Collison find themselves in a similar position tonight, they either need to drive to the basket or dish it inside to Tyler Hansbrough, who was having a monster fourth quarter. Granted, the Bulls recorded three blocks when Indiana players tried to score down low, but what’s easily forgotten is that Boozer had five fouls at the time. Need to capitalize on that.
- Hit free throws. Yes, the superstar card comes into play here with Rose in terms of getting to the line, as evidenced by the Bulls’ 32 free-throw attempts compared to the Pacers’ 17. However, Indiana connected on just 11 of those attempts. All but two Pacers who attempted free throws missed at least one. Hibbert missed a crucial free throw in the final stretch. Collison missed a technical-foul shot. Again, Indiana is at a disadvantage in terms of opportunities here with Rose on the other end of the court. But the team cannot miss on easy points.
- Offensive rebounds. Perhaps lost in the Rose praise is how effectively Chicago acquired second and third chances on the offensive end. The Bulls pulled down 21 offensive rebounds to the Pacers’ 13. The discrepancy kept the Bulls in the contest while the Pacers were shooting well. This comes back to added responsibility to Hansbrough and McRoberts. Those guys need to play how they’re used to playing — all out and no regard for their bodies — to come down with more such opportunities for Indiana.
We’ll see whether the Pacers’ Game 1 effort was an anomaly tonight at 9:30 p.m. I think Indiana plays with the same intensity, but the team must find a way to reverse the final 3:38 from Saturday.