INDIANAPOLIS -- A few years ago, the Indiana Pacers were an upstart 60-win team with a reputation for playing rugged, stifling defense led by Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal.
During one game during that 2003-04 season, the struggling Bulls won the opening tip and tossed the ball to Eddy Curry in the post, where he was promptly sledgehammered by O'Neal and Al Harrington. The Pacers raced back down the court while Curry laid on the ground holding his head.
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Foul? There was none.
When facing a team with a strong defensive reputation, that's how it goes in the NBA. Those teams are allowed to play more aggressively. Anyone who follows the league has surely noticed the trend.
This story does have relevance to the current Bulls-Pacers series, so stick with it. The Pacers dominated Saturday's Game 4 for roughly 45 minutes in front of a decidedly pro-Bulls crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse.
After trailing by as many as 18 points and by 13 with two minutes remaining, the Bulls launched another desperate comeback. They actually had a chance to tie the game, but couldn't locate an open shooter and Carlos Boozer's 3-point attempt bounced off the rim with three seconds left, sealing Indiana's 89-84 win. Game 5 is Tuesday at the United Center.
These Pacers have done a terrific job in the series, taking on the defiant personality of head coach Frank Vogel. They hit more shots, deserved to win on Saturday and all that.
The problem is this Indiana team has never built any kind of defensive reputation. It missed the playoffs for four straight years, then won 37 games this season. Yet, the Pacers are playing the same physical style as their '04 forerunners.
This may not bode well for the Bulls' quest to win an NBA title this season if they can't garner more respect from the referees than this. Indiana is figuratively punching the Bulls in the face every trip down the floor and getting away with it.
The Bulls shot more 31 free throws than the Pacers in the first three games, 10 less on Saturday. But Indiana's game plan is to foul early and often, especially when it comes to MVP favorite Derrick Rose.
How many free throws would Miami's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade be awarded if they faced a team with such a bruising style?
The league office had to overrule game officials and change two rough fouls by Indiana's Jeff Foster to flagrant after the fact. The Bulls may have built the league's best record, but it seems as though they're being asked to prove their worthiness for the role against a No. 8 seed.
"I'm not going to take anything away from the Pacers. I think they're playing well," said forward Carlos Boozer, who has been in foul trouble most 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 barking at Pacers center Roy Hibbert after a basket.
But this isn't about questionable calls here and there -- it's the idea that a team with the NBA's best record has to fight and claw its way past a first-round opponent. So far, the Bulls have rolled with the punches, so to speak.
"I don't think we mind the physical (play). I really don't," Luol Deng said. "Sometimes you're surprised by some of the calls, but you just have to play through it."
"I think it's just the name of the game right now," added Joakim Noah. "The game is physical. That's OK."
Rose attempted just 4 free throws Saturday after averaging 16.3 trips to the foul line in the first three games of the series. He blamed that on himself for not attacking the basket more.
A pivotal play during the comeback came when Rose made a steal, was bumped several times on the way to the basket by Darren Collison and was hit as he attempted a shot. The call was clean block and the Pacers took possession.
After the game, Indiana forward Danny Granger had an explanation for Rose's drop in free-throw attempts.
"We made adjustments," Granger said. "I think a lot of the plays in the first three games should have been no-calls, because our guys were jumping back and jumping with their hands straight up. They're calling it more accurately now. He's so athletic, sometimes it's hard to make an accurate call."
Feel free to debate that last statement for a couple days. The Bulls will dust off their body armor and try again to close out the series on Tuesday.