Bulls struggling with Pacers’ toughness

The Indiana Pacers not only faced a 3-0 deficit in their first-round playoff series against Chicago on Saturday, they also were saddled with the unlikely challenge of taking the crowd out of the game in their own arena.

Bulls fans were clearly the majority at Conseco Fieldhouse, but the Pacers were able to turn that into some extra motivation.

"Every time we went into the huddle, we said, ‘We have to shut the Bulls fans up,’ " Indiana forward Danny Granger said.

The Pacers quieted the fans and dominated the action for roughly 45 minutes, then barely fought off a furious Bulls rally to seal an 89-84 victory. Leading 3-1, the Bulls will try again to close out the series Tuesday at the United Center.

Even before this loss, there were questions about why the Bulls haven’t been able to put more distance between themselves and the eighth-seeded Pacers. Chicago’s largest lead in four games has been a meager seven points. Indiana’s taken on the personality of its confident young coach, Frank Vogel, and battled the Bulls for every inch of available space on the court.

The Pacers have played surprising well, and they deserved to win Saturday. The series is likely to end soon, but it already might have spoken volumes about the Bulls’ chances of winning the NBA title. Simply put, Chicago doesn’t seem to get much respect from the officials.

The tradition in the NBA has been that when a team develops the reputation for being strong defensively, it’s allowed to play more aggressively. Anyone who watches the league regularly can easily recognize the difference.

The Pacers haven’t built a reputation for anything. They missed the playoffs the last four years before sneaking in with a 37-45 record this season. Yet, Indiana is figuratively punching the Bulls in the face every trip down the floor and getting away with it.

The Bulls shot 31 more free throws in the first three games, but the Pacers’ game plan is to foul early and often, especially when it comes to MVP favorite Derrick Rose.

Can the Bulls advance to the NBA Finals if this is what they’ll face throughout the playoffs?

Why did the league office have to change two rough fouls from Indiana’s Jeff Foster to flagrants after the fact? How many free throws would Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade shoot if they played a team that roughed it up this much?

To their credit, the Bulls haven’t complained much. It’s not even so much about questionable calls here and there, it’s just the idea that a team with the NBA’s best record has to fight and claw its way past a first-round opponent.

"I’m not going to take anything away from the Pacers. I think they’re playing well," said Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer, who’s been in foul trouble almost every game. "I wish they would continue to let us play more physical without having the whistles so quickly on us, but we can’t cry about the refs. This is the NBA. This is the playoffs."

Boozer had an interesting experience Saturday. He complained about the lack of a foul call on one offensive trip, then the next time down the court was whistled for a quick offensive foul away from the ball. He picked up a technical in the second half for talking to Pacers center Roy Hibbert after a basket.

"I don’t think we mind the physical (play). I really don’t," Bulls forward Luol Deng said.

"Sometimes, you’re surprised by some of the calls, but you just have to play through it."

Rose averaged 16.3 free throw attempts in the first three games of the series, then shot just four on Saturday. He sprained his left ankle late in the first quarter, but refused to use that as an excuse and even blamed himself for the lack of free throws.

"I think I didn’t attack enough," Rose said. "I think if I would have kept on attacking, they would have had to make the call. But I eased off, (so) just learn from it and next game be more aggressive."

The Pacers won’t need any reminding to stay aggressive. The Bulls had better keep up.