INDIANAPOLIS--It was if the Bulls and Pacers decided to use their preseason opener to resume the fierce battle they waged in April, when the two teams faced off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The play was physical, ragged and intense, Carlos Boozer struggled throughout the contest, Chicago's defense was dominant, the second unit gave the team a major boost and the Bulls methodically came back from a large deficit to eventually leave the unfriendly confines of Conseco Fieldhouse with a 95-86 victory Friday night.
"To me, your first game, you've got to establish who you are. What our identity is not going to be based on what happened last year. We have to re-establish who we are this year, so this is the first step," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards. "There's a lot of things we've got to clean up, obviously.
"Defensively, I thought our defense was horrid in the first quarter and then the last three quarters, I thought it was better, but it's still not anywhere near where it needs to be. I thought we gave up a ton of second shots, so that has to be cleaned up," the reigning NBA Coach of the Year continued about his team, which committed turnovers on the evening. "I always say, 'You have to eliminate the ways in which you beat yourself,' and it starts with those turnovers."
Concurred Derrick Rose: "Turnovers. We can deal with missed shots; that's going to happen in the game. But turnovers, that's something that we've definitely got to change and that starts with me. A perfect game to me is no turnovers. I don't care about any other stat, other than turnovers."
A sloppy start, compounded by Rose (16 points, 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, six turnovers) picking up two fouls in the first two minutes of the contest, didn't bode well for the Bulls. Playing catch-up from the outset against the Central Division rival Pacers, a mix of unforced turnovers and untimely fouls didn't help the situation.
"The first five minutes of the game, I didn't like the tone at all, on either end," said Thibodeau. "It was real easy for them."
Although the Bulls faced a double-digit deficit, backup point guard C.J. Watson (15 points) was a bright spot, filling in for Rose with ten first-quarter points to keep the visitors afloat. However, the rugged inside presence of Pacers power forward Tyler Hansbrough and a strong overall team showing allowed the home team to take a 33-22 advantage into the second stanza.
After Watson picked up his own second foul late in the opening period, Thibodeau reinserted Rose, who mostly played orchestrator for his teammates, guiding them back into close contact with the Pacers behind stalwart defense from the reserve post duo of Taj Gibson (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots) and Omer Asik. By the midway point of the quarter, the Bulls had knotted up the count at 37 apiece, following rookie Jimmy Butler (eight points, 3-for-3 from the field) hitting the third of his first three NBA shot attempts.
"I was nervous at first, but those guys told me to calm down and do what I've been doing for however many years and that's play basketball. They wanted me to be successful and they said I did all right," said the beaming NBA novice after the game.
"Everything about the game surprised me," he continued. "You can get away with stuff in college by being more athletic or your length. At this level, everybody can do everything, so it was definitely a learning experience out there.
"That first jumper, off the glass--I didn't call it, so I don't know--but after that, I think my nerves started to calm and after my first defensive trip, I was like, 'Maybe I do belong here.'"
His teammates and coaches took notice.
"He's great, man. He's a great addition to our team, with him being so young and understanding the game. He has a lot of confidence--quiet confidence--but when he's out there, he's always doing something good. He can defend, plays smart--especially to be a rookie--and I think he's going to be one of the pieces Coach is going to use a lot," said Rose.
Added Thibodeau: "And like all rookies, he did some things well, some things not so well, but overall, I was very pleased with what he did. He's worked very hard, he's studied hard, he's prepared himself well thus far and now he has to show he can do it over the course of the season, but I think he's got the right attitude and the right approach, and that's the first step."
Thibodeau was pleased, in general--after all, he's never completely satisfied--with how his reserves performed.
"The defense was great," Thibodeau observed. "That group the second unit gave us a good lift.
"I love our depth," he added, choosing his words carefully, so as to avoid a fine so early into the campaign. "It was interesting today because of course, Derrick had a couple calls that were tough calls, but it was good because it got C.J. into the game early and I thought he gave us a big lift. I think we all have a lot of confidence in his ability."
Chicago would seize its first lead of the game at 40-39 and with Luol Deng (16 points, six rebounds) having one of his quietly effective nights, the Bulls slowly built a small cushion against their hosts. Despite neither Boozer nor Rose--who did hit seven free throws--making a first-half field goal, the visitors, buoyed by a defense that held the Pacers to 2-of-23 shooting went into the intermission with a 52-47 advantage, after a Deng bucket in the waning moments of the period.
While the Bulls maintained their slim lead, the feisty Pacers continued to battle, keeping things close behind center Roy Hibbert's (14 points, seven rebounds) aggressive interior offense. Rose, however, started to find his offensive mojo--as both a scorer and a playmaker, and even on the offensive glass-but with active swingman Paul George (17 points, 10 rebounds) and other comrades providing high-energy plays, the contest evolved into a back-and-forth affair.
"I charged, traveled, like some high school turnovers, but I just know that comes with being excited," said Rose. "But I know my game is definitely going to come back to me, since I've been working so hard this summer.
"It feels good just being in the training room, just seeing guys excited about going out there playing, and the fans, seeing them come, cheer, boo against us, it doesn't matter. Just us being in this atmosphere is great," he continued. "I hope the fans like it. We were out there, really getting at it. A lot of tough plays, really diving for the ball, rebounding, a lot of intensity and it shows that both teams are trying to do something this year."
Boozer (seven points on 3-for-3 shooting, six rebounds, three turnovers) wasn't as appreciative of the rowdy Indianapolis crowd, many of whom targeted Bulls players--especially him--for verbal abuse.
"Some of them are funny, some of them are not so funny," he quipped. "I've got to knock the rust off, knock the cobwebs off and then, now we can start getting loose a little bit more.
"It seems like we've played them 20 times," he went on to say. "Doesn't it seem like we played them a lot over the last 12, 16 months? We're very familiar with them, to say the least.
Added Thibodeau: "I did like the way Boozer and Ronnie were playing off each other. I thought his floor game was very good. I thought he had some bunnies that he normally makes, that he didn't make. But some good, some bad. Just got to keep building."
The on-court action couldn't be described as crisp, but the Central Division rivals exhibited midseason effort, in terms of hustle, as if they were picking up from where they left off in their spring first-round playoff series, as the brand of "smash-mouth basketball" Pacers sideline skipper Frank Vogel--the league's youngest head coach, hired on a permanent basis in the offseason after ending the franchise's postseason drought as an interim coach--employs paid dividends. However, through three quarters of play, the Bulls held a tenuous 72-71 lead.
Gibson continued his consistent play, using his left-handed jump hook--a product of post move-intensive summer workouts--a mid-range jumper and solid awareness to provide the Bulls with a scoring presence, along with Watson resuming his first-half efforts. But the Bulls were mainly propelled by their defense, which led the league a season ago and looked to be top form--rebounding, contesting of shots, hustle plays and help-side defense were all at a high level--despite it only being the preseason opener, helping the Conseco Fieldhouse guests gain some separation from home-standing Indiana.
Joakim Noah (10 points, eight rebounds began to put his stamp on the contest's stretch run, with plenty of activity on both ends of the floor, particularly the backboards, while also playing his usual role as the team's formidable back line of defense. As the game wound down, the Bulls, equipped with a double-digit lead, would cruise to a hard-fought triumph, with a rematch looming Tuesday in Chicago.
"They're a good team, I'll say. There's no other way you can put it. They're a good team and when you play against good teams, sometimes the games aren't going to be that pretty," Rose explained. "We know each other--know the players, coaches--like the back of our hand. It's the same way with them. We make things tough on them sometimes, too."