April 23, 2011

After dropping the first three games of the series by a combined 15 points, the Indiana Pacers notched their first victory of the first round in a nail-biter. A late 18-3 run by the Bulls sliced the Pacers' substantial advantage to a single point with 15 seconds remaining, but four made free throws by Danny Granger and a strong defensive effort from the Pacers on a potentially game-tying Bulls possession kept the game just out of reach.

• An 0-3 series deficit usually seems insurmountable, but the Pacers have been competitive in all four games thus far, and it's not difficult to imagine an alternate reality in which Indiana would be 2-2 or better. If the games in this series remain true to form, Indiana has a legitimate chance of winning every time these two teams take the floor. The Pacers must continue to defend, work hard for quality shots, and put all the pressure on the Bulls' offense, but if they can accomplish that, Indiana will likely be able to reduce every remaining game to a tossup -- a remarkable feat for a team that barely made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed.

• Chicago's defense was among the strongest assets of any team entering the postseason, but so far it hasn't been able to lock down Indiana's remarkably average offense. The Pacers don't have many shot creators (nor do they have any efficient scorers, really), but by moving the ball well, attacking the offensive glass, and refusing to drift into stagnation, they've improbably managed to retain offensive buoyancy. There's no magic formula for exploiting the Bulls' typically airtight defense, but the Pacers have been able to cut down on poor habits, and that alone has made a tremendous difference. Indiana's offensive strategy doesn't offer a blueprint for teams to attack Chicago, but their discipline certainly does.

• Dahntay Jones had become a marginal part of the Pacers' rotation this season, but his defensive work against Derrick Rose over the last two games has made him an essential reserve for this series. Paul George's defense on Rose has been widely praised, but beyond George, Indiana doesn't have many defenders who have been up to the task of checking one of the league's most explosive offensive players. Jones has stepped in and been quite successful in that regard, as he provides the same length, athleticism and relentlessness that have made George so effective. Jones has merely been very good defensively while George has been superlative, but having a reasonably effective reserve to fill in as Rose's primary defender has been crucial for the Pacers in the last two contests.

• Rose was also slowed by a sprained ankle that he suffered in the first quarter, and we saw how his importance to Chicago's offense can work against the team; with their initiator blanketed, the Bulls have had trouble settling into any kind of offensive rhythm. This is where Carlos Boozer -- Chicago's second-best offensive player -- would step up, but the normally productive forward has been underwhelming in this series. Boozer should be able to exploit defenders like Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts (who are both active on the defensive end, but not the long post defenders who typically give Boozer trouble), yet the Pacers' aggressive defense held him to 40 percent shooting in Game 4 and forced him into four turnovers, after holding the former All-Star to 20 percent shooting with three turnovers in Game 3. If Boozer can score more efficiently by setting up either on the block or in mid-range, that could give Chicago's offense the kind of punch it lacks at present. That's easier said than done, but the Bulls are in dire need of reliable offensive options when Rose is limited, and Boozer hasn't been able to offer much help.

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