Derrick Rose, in his second game back on the court after his extended injury absence, had seven assists, including three late to a red-hot Kyle Korver, to lead the Chicago Bulls over the Indiana Pacers 92-87 Wednesday night.
The Bulls had the best record in the East (48-16) and aimed to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs leaguewide. San Antonio was also 48-16 entering Wednesday, but loses a tiebreaker to Chicago.
Danny Granger was out for the Pacers and in his place was Lance Stephenson, who was making his first start of his career. Stephenson filled in nicely for Granger, leading Indiana in scoring and hitting on 10-15 shots for the team-high 22 points.
But Stephenson was also tasked with chasing around Korver, who rang up a team-high of his own, with 20 points. Korver consistently hung Stephenson up on screens and Rose calmly found him three times in the fourth quarter, an 11-point effort that helped dilute Stephenson's own 12-point quarter and keep the Pacers at arms length before closing out the game.
The easy synergy in the Bulls lineup, as shown by a quick 32-24 first-quarter start, 27 assists for the game, the crisp screen setting to set Korver free and Rose's perfect anticipation and delivery of the ball, was in spite of the fact that, while the Bulls had their preferred starting lineup and rotation in tact, it was only the 15th game all season that lineup had been able to play together.
Carlos Boozer (16 points, seven rebounds, 23 minutes) helped that start with 10 first-quarter points, as the fadeaway was working early and often, making all but one of his eight field goals with his signature jump shot.
While the Bulls are interested in assimilating Rose back into the flow, Tom Thibodeau nicely limited Rose to a little more than 26 minutes, playing him eight minutes in his half-starting shifts and then five to neatly close out the halves.
Meanwhile, the heartbeat of the Bulls inside game, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, playing a healthy 33 and 34 minutes respectively and took care of the glass, securing 22 rebounds between them. Despite Indiana being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, the Bulls held them to only rebounding seven of their 45 misses on the night, a .156 pace that is almost half of their usual take-in for a game.
At Indy Cornrows, Nathan S. explains how Indiana couldn't keep up with the Bulls:
When the game turned into a festival of jump shots (with Darren Collison scorching the nets early), it was only a matter of time before the Pacers went ice cold, as they dropped in only two points in the first six minutes, while Chicago pushed the lead to 15 points. The starters returned to salvage what they could of a disastrous second quarter offensively, but the team's inability to get stops on a Chicago team that was just plain hitting shots meant the lead held strong in double figures.
Meanwhile, at Blog-A-Bull, your friendly BullsBlogger notes that the game may have revealed a fourth-quarter trend for Chicago's playoff rotation:
And, it's of note that Korver again was the closing lineup SG with Derrick Rose while Rip Hamilton sat on the bench. Hamilton got similarly open looks, but missed a lot of them. And he was caught sleeping on defense a few times, something that's often not considered when discussing his acclimation with the team. Maybe it really is Korver's job to lose as the Bulls head into the postseason.
For all of Wednesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.