INDIANAPOLIS -- Two near-misses at the United Center have only lifted the Indiana Pacers’ confidence and entrenched their conviction they can upset the Bulls in their first-round playoff series.
They took Games 1 and 2 to the wire, only to trip over their own inexperience and lack of execution. Experience can only come incrementally for a young team, so the execution will have to hurry if it’s going to arrive in time for Thursday’s Game 3 at Conseco Fieldhouse.
One stat tells the Pacers’ story with the unhappy ending: they were outscored 62-43 in the two fourth quarters at the United Center.
“We’ve pretty much controlled the game for the first three quarters in both games,” point guard Darren Collison said. “We need to be a lot sharper in each game. If we have to be almost perfect, if that’s what it takes to beat the No. 1 seed, that’s what we’ll do.”
That starts with finding a way to limit Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who averaged 37.5 points and 7.5 assists over the first two games and made backbreaking plays at closing time of each game.
The Pacers knew they were wading into a hurricane in taking on Rose, who scored 42 against them in the final regular season meeting, and so far it’s gone just as badly as they feared. They’ve failed to keep him from penetrating to the basket, they’ve failed to keep him off the foul line, and his assists -- such as the one that set up Kyle Korver’s game-clinching three-pointer in Game 1 -- have been damaging as well.
Rose will weigh heavily on interim coach Frank Vogel’s mind, but won’t keep him up nights.
“I love the challenge,” Vogel said. “That’s why I’m in coaching -- to figure out the chess match of what can we do to slow down a player like Derrick Rose.
“I study it, I watch the game, I watch the game again, I watch all the Rose pick-and-rolls again, I watch his transition again. Every clip, what can we do differently here, what can we do differently there. I love it.”
Paul George, the Pacers rookie who’s been handed most of the responsibility of guarding Rose, didn’t talk that romantically after the team’s video session at the fieldhouse on Tuesday. But he’s not ready to back down, either.
“I still feel I’m getting a better understanding of how to play him and what his tendencies are,” George said.
The Pacers trapped Rose with moderate success in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game, a strategy they had utilized a couple of times during the regular season and practiced each day heading into the playoffs.
“We wanted to see what it looked like,” Vogel said. “It seemed pretty effective, so we’ll have to re-evaluate whether we do it or not.”
The Pacers could have survived Rose’s late-game wrecking balls with better offensive execution. They hit a combined 15-of-42 shots in the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2 as their offense grew stagnant and shots became forced.
The Bulls’ defense, the NBA’s best during the regular season, gets much of the credit. Danny Granger, the Pacers’ leading scorer in the series with a 21.5 average, called them “more in tune than defensively than any team I’ve seen.” The Pacers, however, believe they should be able to come up with an answer.
“I’m re-evaluating that every day and it comes down to poise and the extra pass,” Vogel said. “Just executing the simple facets of basketball -- spacing, screening and reading and simple offensive execution.”
Beyond that, the Pacers will rely on maturity. Quick maturity. They came close in Games 1 and 2. Perhaps the experience of those games and the comfort of their home court advantage will make a difference in the next two.
“We’ve grown a lot in two games,” Granger said. “They came after us with run after run and we responded every time. With our fans supporting us back on our home court we’re going to go on some runs of our own.”