Asked if the Indiana Pacers made Thursday’s Game 3 a more physical battle than is generally expected in the NBA, even during the playoffs, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah stared defiantly at his questioner.
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"It felt great," he said. "I’m not giving them no credit."
OK then, Pacers coach Frank Vogel should be given some credit for exploring so many options in an attempt to stop Bulls guard Derrick Rose.
Vogel sent 6-foot-8 rookie Paul George to chase Rose more often. He dusted off guard Dahntay Jones, who didn’t play at all in the first two games of the series. The Pacers also trapped Rose more often, sometimes deep in the backcourt.
"That’s just making me better as a player," Rose shrugged. "As a young player, I’ve seen almost every coverage. They made it tough."
All those plans produced terrific results for the Pacers, until the game was on the line. Rose was 3 for 17 from the field in the game, 0 for 8 in the second half, when the Bulls gained possession with 33.4 seconds remaining in a tie score.
Rose blew past Jones with a left-handed dribble, easily beat Danny Granger’s help and finished a lay-in that sent the Bulls to an 88-84 victory at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Once again, the Pacers gave it a great shot and delivered some rough blows. But the Bulls lead the first-round series 3-0 and can finish a sweep Saturday afternoon.
"We’re really frustrated right now," Indiana forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "For all three games, it came down to one or two baskets or one or two possessions."
Noah was able to summarize the crux of Indiana’s problem.
"We’ve got the best closer in the world," Noah said. "Everybody knows it. Their coach knows it. They have no problem saying it. That definitely gives confidence to our team."
In addition to his amazing athletic skills, Rose also has the ability to forget about those 14 shots he missed earlier in the game.
"So what if I miss shots?" he said. "It was tough all night the way they were playing me. But I saw a little space (on the final basket) and just went to the hole."
In Game 2, Rose produced 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists, but Vogel insisted that George did an excellent defensive job. Before Thursday’s contest, Vogel didn’t back down.
"I’m looking at highlights where Michael (Jordan) is going for 63 on the Celtics," Vogel said. "This guy’s taking 25 shots a game, has the ball in his hands the entire game. He’s capable of going for 50. So holding him to 36 points just might be doing a great job on him, as much as the ball’s in his hands."
With defenders coming at him in waves, Rose let his teammates do most of the shooting early in the contest. He didn’t score his first points until knocking down a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first quarter. Luol Deng had 21 points for the Bulls, while sharp-shooter Kyle Korver scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and is now 7 for 8 from 3-point range in the series.
In the third quarter, Rose was hit across the face by Indiana center Jeff Foster and stuck around to bark about the result. Foster later smashed Deng on top of the head with an elbow. After the game, the Bulls offered no complaints.
"You just have to go back in there and make your free throws," Deng said. "That’s their game plan. It’s the playoffs, no layups."
Added forward Taj Gibson, "It was an old-school game, as Kurt (Thomas) would say. We go against Booz (Carlos Boozer), Joakim and Kurt in practice. That game was the kind of game we’re used to playing in practice."
Chicago has taken a 3-0 series lead against Indiana without ever building more than a seven-point lead. In this matchup, though, simply getting back up off the floor has worked wonders for the Bulls.
Mike McGraw is in his 12th season covering the Bulls for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.