Keep up the defense, check. Dominate the boards, check. Cut down the turnovers, check. Hit your free throws, check. Back it up on the second night of a back-to-back, check. Shut down the Bulls, check. Stay undefeated, check.
That's right, baby! The Indiana Pacers just smoked the Chicago Bulls, 97-80, in their biggest statement game of the season thus far. Remember, starting point guard George Hill sat out his third straight game with a hip injury, the Bulls beat the Pacers both times in the preseason and were desperate for a strong outing after their 1-2 start, and the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back. Keeping all this in mind, I must confess I thought the Bulls would hand the Pacers their first loss of the season.
The final score was not indicative of how close this game was. It was a back and forth, grind 'em up contest (as expected) where both teams made runs. The Pacers got out to a good start, leading 25-19 at the end of the first quarter, but like last night, they had a horrible second quarter as the Bulls managed to grab a 6-point lead at the half. As usual, the Pacers turned it up in the third and grabbed a lead, and instead of the Bulls making a charge in the fourth the Pacers dialed up the defense and pulled away.
Sure, Derrick Rose is still not "himself", and we know for certain that the Bulls will be much much much better by the end of the season than they are now. But I'm going to admit now that this Pacers team is for real. If they can stay healthy they are a first tier title contender right up there with the Heat.
So much to like about this game, as ugly as it was. Paul George led the way with 21 points on only 6-19 shooting (not unexpected against the Bulls), but hit all 7 of his free throws and had 6 rebounds and 3 assists with only 2 turnovers. More impressively, he was effective in guarding both Luol Deng and Derrick Rose. PG24 forced the offense a few times trying to draw fouls by plowing into the lane and was frustrated by the no calls, but the refs were pretty fair at both ends of the floor. On the whole, this was still a strong performance which demonstrated his willingness to be the team's go-to guy. Without question.
I also loved Roy Hibbert's stat line: 8 points, 10 rebounds (including 5 offensive) and another 5 blocks to go with his league-leading total. Hibbert's offense is still not there (missing a lot of point blank shots), but his defense is as good as it has ever been. I've been impressed with his attitude — he only took 8 shots tonight when West, George and Stephenson each took at least 16 — but he doesn't seem to care about his points at all. He just wants to play D and help the team win. That's an encouraging sign.
David West finally snapped out of an early season funk with a break-out game, scoring 17 points on 8-16 shooting, grabbing 13 rebounds and racking up 3 steals. He was huge when the Pacers needed a basket and his money mid-range jumper appears to be back.
The unsung hero tonight has to be Luis Scola, who helped the Pacers build their lead in the fourth quarter with some beautiful mid-range jumpers and a steal and fast-break layup that practically broke Chicago's back. Scola was 6-8 from the field and finished with 12 huge points and he also had 2 steals.
Two other guys who stepped up in George Hill's absence were CJ Watson and Donald Sloan. Watson had 11 points on 3-5 shooting while battling foul trouble trying to shut down Derrick Rose. Last year in this situation the Pacers would have had to rely on third-string guard Ben Hansbrough (gasp), but this year they have the luxury of a solid guy like Donald Sloan, who finished with 9 points on 4-6 shooting and had 6 rebounds and 4 assists. In a game where the Pacers missed their usual starting point guard, the Pacers managed to get a total of 20 points and 8 assists with ZERO turnovers at that position. That is remarkable.
Lance Stephenson struggled really badly in the first half and missed everything (0-7) but he remained confident in his shot and scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, including two dagger three-pointers. He finished with 15 points on 5-17 shooting and had 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 turnovers. I like this development because Stephenson is remaining a key contributor to the team but not pricing himself out of it when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
In all, just a fantastic performance by a confident team that will only get better as the season progresses. I'm excited.
PS: Next up, a potential letdown game against the Raptors after a day of rest, and then it's off to Brooklyn the following night to take on the new look Nets.