Bulls vs. Pacers: Bigger than your typical rivalry.

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    Updated: October 22, 2013
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    Derrick Rose has admitted that he doesn’t see the Indiana Pacers as “rivals” to his Bulls.  Of these two Eastern Conference powers, which is truly more poised to quell the Heat’s three-peat machine?

         Indiana’s near dethroning of Miami in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals was highlighted by the rise of Paul George into an oft-unseen category for NBA players: defensive superstardom. Many believe that at 6’10’’ with the athleticism of a guard, increased strength, and a team-first defensive attitude, George has become the premier “LeBron-stopper” in the league.  Such a title may very well be contradictory in and of itself, but George does not necessarily need to perform the impossible for his Pacers to reach the promised land – Indiana has a top-three frontcourt in West and Hibbert, a playoff-proven tandem of point guards in George Hill and C.J. Watson, and a newly healthy Danny Granger. Even if Granger does not quite return to All-Star form right away, he’s bound to help this ball club one way or another, and Frank Vogel has the flexibility to limit Granger’s minutes due to the recent, pleasantly surprising success of Lance Stephenson. Indiana will also benefit greatly from postseason pick-up Luis Scola.  So while it may seem odd that Derrick Rose doesn’t consider the Pacers-Bulls matchup a legitimate rivalry, Derrick’s comments were certainly taken out of context by the media – he very clearly complimented Indiana by calling them a “great team.” 

    Courtesy of nbanewssource.com 

         Since when does a rivalry imply that both teams are competitive, anyway? Rivalry is grounded more in tradition and past animosity than anything else, including the current state of the rival teams in question. Derrick may have been referring to his team’s recent playoff battles with the Heat (Chicago hasn’t faced Indiana in a playoff series since the 2010-11 season), or its recent regular season jousting with Miami for the one-seed (the Heat were the one-seed last season, the Bulls two consecutive seasons previous). Furthermore, what other franchise could Derrick appropriately call a rival other than that which houses the only winner of league MVP since he won the award in 2011? Anyway, the media’s overreaction to Rose’s perfectly logical comments nonetheless got me thinking – between Indiana and Chicago, which is the better ball-club head-to-head? And, on a separate note, which matches up better with Miami in 2013-14?          


    Courtesy of Nick Friedell

       If the Pacers and Bulls do meet in this year’s playoffs (an outcome very likely if Miami finishes atop the East again in the regular season), I have to give the edge to Chicago now that Rose is healthy.  In a series between teams of similar talent and similar strengths, the best player in a series often decides things, and that player is Derrick Rose. Pretty much all of Indiana’s frontcourt production comes from the ultra-efficient David West (still one of the most underrated players in this league), but a healthy Joakim Noah, one of the league’s best defensive players at any position, will limit West’s impact along with help from Taj Gibson off the bench. The frontcourt battle between these two teams should be pretty much a wash, unless Hibbert and Scola both overachieve offensively, but a similar collective performance from Gibson and Boozer isn’t much less likely. Other than Boozer’s mid-range game, Chicago doesn’t look to their frontcourt for scoring. Whereas Indiana does this to an extent, so even if the Bulls’ frontcourt is slightly outscored by Indiana’s, this doesn’t necessarily mean it was outplayed.             

    Courtesy of bleacherreport.com


         If both Granger and George are performing at an All-Star level, Indiana has an edge on the wings, but not by much. Luol Deng is an All-Star in his own right, and perfectly capable of outplaying either of these players on either end of the floor on any given night. And if Jimmy Butler continues to improve, the swingmen matchup in this series becomes more and more of a wash. And the guard matchup clearly goes to Chicago with D-Rose being one of the hardest players to guard on the planet, as well as a true winner who exerts more effort on defense than a player of his athleticism would normally be inclined to exert.           


    Courtesy of examiner.com

         Indiana has three legitimate bench players in Scola, Stephenson (or Granger), and C.J. Watson, as does Chicago in Gibson, Dunleavy, and Kirk Hinrich. Dunleavy will be a defensive liability in this series against such athletic wings, but Tom Thibodeau will minimize the severity of Mike’s defensive flaws by inserting him into the game with a Deng or Butler on the floor (or both if the situation calls), freeing up the veteran to offer his offensive wizardry, not unlike how Erik Spoelstra has recently employed Mike Miller. Hinrich is simply a better basketball player than C.J. Watson and will therefore give Chicago the back-up PG edge. The addition of Hinrich actually hasn’t been talked about enough – it will enable Thibodeau to play Kirk and Derrick Rose together with certain lineups, freeing up Rose from ball handling responsibilities at times and putting him in even more positions to score. Since Indiana’s best defensive players are starters (whereas Gibson and Hinrich are among the best defensive players for Chicago), offensive production from guys like Dunleavy and 3-point sniper stretch-four Erik Murphy will be easier to come by. Advantage Bulls.           

         The irony surrounding this year’s Eastern Conference heavyweights, however, is that Indiana actually has a better chance than Chicago at beating Miami in a playoff series. The Pacers’ frontcourt prowess that is stifled by the Bulls would have an easier time against the smaller Heat, and with three athletic wings (Chicago really only has two), Indiana would do a better job containing guys like James, Wade, and Beasley. Chicago’s only real matchup advantage in a series against Miami is Derrick Rose at point guard, but after all, Rose would most likely be covered by LeBron James; one of the few players in the league with the athletic skills to contain him. If Indiana wants a shot at Miami, one that it clearly deserves, Frank Vogel should take note of Spoeltra’s strategy from the 2011 playoffs, and consider putting either George or Granger on Rose for the entirety of a series. On the other hand, the brass in Chicago should consider making a deal before the trade deadline to acquire another big-time scorer besides Rose – if not, chances against Miami are slim.  

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