INDIANAPOLIS — One game separates the Bulls and Pacers in the Central Division standings, but the two defensive-oriented rivals, third and second, respectively, in points allowed per game, have even more in common than jostling for the divisional crown.
“They’re a well-balanced team. I think they put a premium on defense. Offensively, they share the ball and play together; they’re inside-out,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They’re a deep team and they've proven over the past couple of years, they’re an all-around team.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel took the mutual admiration even further with Monday’s matchup — the rescheduled game from the Dec. 26 contest, which was postponed by a blizzard in Indiana — looming.
I admire everything about the job Tom Thibodeau does. Everything about him,” he gushed. “They’re one of the most physical teams in the NBA, one through five. They hit you, they hit first, ask questions later and I admire their style.
“You always want to play against the best and I think they’re one of the best, even without Derrick Rose. Thibs obviously does as good a job as anybody in the league year in and year out, and I admire their style of play. The way they share the basketball, the way they play with physicality and the way they defend.”
All-Star swingman Paul George chimed in: “Any time you play a divisional team, it’s the same battles we’ve got when we play Milwaukee. It’s tough games when you play in the division, so we look at them as definitely a team that we compete hard against.
“It’s a tough team defensively and it really takes a lot of execution to really execute against this team.”
Vogel also pointed to the fact that both teams are missing their leading scorers from last season. Derrick Rose’s absence has been well-chronicled, but Indiana is also without Danny Granger, in whose place George has thrived.
“There’s so many variables to when those two guys come back and what effectiveness they’re going to be at when they come back. It’s a lot up in the air in that regard. I just think whatever happens with those two guys, I think this division’s going to be won on the court, with the head-to-head matchups,” he explained. “We’ve got good depth and we’re not one-man depths. That’s the difference us and some of the superstar teams, is we’ve got a lot of good players and these teams are put together well by our front offices, and we try to prepare them and coach them as well as we can.”
Granger could be back before this month’s All-Star break.
“We’re hoping to get him into action before the All-Star break. A lot still has to happen before then, in terms of his progression with the workload that we’re increasing every day, so we’ll see if that’s a possibility or not,” Vogel said. “He participated in a live practice the other day, looked pretty good. It’s just a matter of increasing that workload.”
But regardless of who’s on the court Monday — for the Bulls, of their three injured starters, power forward Carlos Boozer is a game-time decision due to his right-hamstring injury, All-Star center Joakim Noah is unlikely to play because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot and veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich remains in Chicago with a right-elbow injury — the contest will be intense.
“Big game. It’s going to be a tough game. We’ve just got to find a way to win it,” Luold Deng told CSNChicago.com. “They’re very good at home. They’re a good team, beat a lot of good teams here, so it’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of focus to get it tonight.”
Indiana, which has won 13 straight home games, is in the midst of a lockout-like back-to-back-to-back stretch because of the rescheduled contest.
“I just made a photocopy of what we had then [the Dec. 26 game] and just rolled with that,” Vogel quipped. “You just roll with it. We’ve got a ‘roll with it’ mentality that we kind of picked up with the lockout year last year and it’s one of those things that’s out of your control. They've got a few different guys in or out of the lineup, so there’s some slight adjustments from the game plan that we had before.
“I think it’s [experiencing three games with no breaks during last season’s lockout-shortened schedule] going to be in the back of their minds. I think it helped to have that experience last year and hopefully we win all three,” he continued. “I didn’t really have a reaction, to be honest with you. I knew it was going to be a tight squeeze, wherever they put it. We played three games in three nights a couple times last year and did pretty well, so it wasn’t a big concern.
“We’re not interested in the streak, really. We’re interested in winning the next game. This is the Central Division championship game right here. Who wins this division is going to be determined on the court, not miscellaneous matchups around the league. But I think the head-to-head matchups are going to decide this division.”