The Bulls might have snapped the Pacers’ nine-game winning streak to begin the regular season Saturday night. And while they won’t play again until March, it isn’t as if the either of the two teams will forget about the other.
Whether or not they face off in the playoffs obviously has yet to be determined at this early juncture, but one gets the feeling that the divisional opponents will be battling it out all year for the Central crown, not to mention the right to at least attempt to dethrone the Heat and make a trip to the NBA Finals. For the Bulls, those hopes obviously rest on the shoulders of Derrick Rose and whether the former league MVP can play at the same level he did in the 110-94 win over Indiana, something Pacers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged even before the game.
“Well, I just think there’s more balance,” Vogel said of the Bulls’ offense when Rose is playing at his best. “You can be hit from a variety of different directions, and they still have good balance when he’s in there. But all eyes have got to be on Derrick Rose when he’s in the game.”
Rose still isn’t finishing at the basket the way he did prior to tearing his ACL back in April of 2012, but knocking down six three-pointers against a top-tier defense like Indiana’s was obviously a step in the right direction. The defensive end is another area in which the Pacers have appeared to surpass the Bulls, emerging as perhaps the league’s premier team on that end of the floor, as center Roy Hibbert has started the season as the NBA’s top shot-blocking force.
“You have to give them a lot of credit. He was a highly skilled player in college, at Georgetown. But he did a great job with his body. He changed his body when he got into the league, so that takes a serious commitment,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau admiringly said of Hibbert. “Each year, he’s gotten better. He’s worked extremely hard, and he’s embraced his role with that team. He doesn’t worry about his offense, he does his role. He stars in his role.”
Hibbert isn’t the most mobile big man around, but at 7-foot-2, with plenty of strength, he’s somewhat of an immovable object in the paint. He also owns a feathery touch from the mid-range area and solid, if not flashy post moves, though he doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with his offense.
“I think he brings consistent effort every night, consistent play every night,” Vogel said of Hibbert, whose impact can’t always be gauged by his numbers. “It’s just that every now and then, he has statistically great nights.”
Hibbert is almost the opposite of Bulls counterpart Joakim Noah, who is far less of a post-up threat, but utilizes his uncanny foot speed and ball skills to his advantage. When asked recently about his approach against Hibbert, Noah simply responded: “Try to front his big (expletive) as much as possible and make him run around.”
While Hibbert is the anchor of the Pacers’ defense, he’s not the only factor in their early-season success. Improved depth and a commitment to “smash-mouth basketball,” a physical style mirroring the Bulls, also has a lot to do with it.
“They have great length up front, Hibbert is really, his shot-blocking is huge. They’re tied together, they play together. I think (David) West is very underrated as a defender. He’s got a lot of toughness, takes on a challenge. (Paul) George is probably as good as it gets on the perimeter. (Lance) Stephenson is a good competitor. So their length, their ball-pressure, you’ve got to take care of the ball. They’ve got great hands, they’re always poking at the ball. They put a lot of pressure on you,” Thibodeau explained. “They’re playing terrific defense. They played great defense last year, but I think each year they’ve gotten better and better and they’ve made a strong commitment to it. They challenge shots, the cover for each other. If there is a mistake that’s made, Hibbert is always waiting, so it makes it tough.”
Of course, on the other end of the floor, George, a first-time All Star last season and the recent recipient of a max long-term contract, is Indiana’s focal point. The smooth, athletic and versatile swingman has made the jump to an elite-level two-way player in the minds of many and has justified both the hype and his future salary with a corresponding statistical increase.
Thibs: "Their bigs are real tough inside, but Paul George is a superstar. He puts a lot of pressure on you. Stephenson has really played well. George Hill is one of those guys that’s under the radar. C.J. Watson is one of those guys that can come off the bench or start. And (Luis) Scola is a starter that comes off the bench, so they’re very, very deep, they’re tough, they’re well balanced, so we’ve got a lot of respect for them."
“I think about 12 points per game or 10 points per game,” Vogel quipped recently, when asked what the biggest difference was in George this season. “His shot-making just continues to take another giant leap, and it’s something we welcome. He’s making good decisions but really just carrying himself with a great deal of confidence.
“It began when we lost Game 7 (to Miami in last season's conference finals). We said, ‘Bring it in. It was a great year. We’ll make another run at it next year,’ and a voice emerged in the huddle and it was Paul’s,” the coach continued, elaborating about his star player’s leadership ability. “A third-year player, speaking up in that situation, speaks volumes about what kind of kid he is, what kind of leader he is, and his message was, ‘We’ve got to take the next step next year. We’re not going to be happy just getting to the conference finals.’”
Thibodeau, even from the opposing sideline, has been impressed with George’s progress, too: “The improvement each year has been incredible. It’s a testament to him, the way he works. When you put the work into the game, good things happen.”
Another key component for the Pacers has been the development of Stephenson. Once seen as an erratic player, not only has the former highly touted New York City prep legend become steadier, but he’s found a niche as a solid playmaker, outside shooter and defender, whose confident nature is still very much evident when he plays, though his maturity is also apparent.
“Learning the game, being patient and my teammates being on the same page. They know where I’m comfortable at, they know where I can score, so it’s easier for me to get the buckets that I get,” Stephenson told CSNChicago.com when asked about his improvement. “It’s just that it took time and patience, learning from other players and just being smart on the floor.”
Stephenson has played well enough that the expected debate about whether he’d stay in the starting lineup or former All Star Danny Granger would get his old job back has faded into the background. Of course, the fact that Granger, who only played five games due to a knee injury last season, is currently back on the shelf, makes the decision easier for Vogel.
“Danny’s doing good,” Vogel said, when asked to update the veteran small forward’s status. “He came back and practiced hard earlier in the week, had some soreness afterwards, so we’re backing off until that’s gone and he’ll hopefully practice next week again.”
Granger was the face of the Pacers in Thibodeau’s first season at the helm in Chicago, Rose’s MVP year, when the Bulls dispatched a feisty Indiana squad, with Vogel as the interim head coach, in the first round of the playoffs. George was just a rookie, Stephenson was basically nailed to the bench and Hibbert was a project back then, but just a season later, that same team had a different feel about them, going from a plucky eighth seed to a team on the rise.
It often goes overlooked now, but even with the young players’ development and their coach gaining experience, the franchise’s acquisition of West played a major part in shaping their current blue-collar style. The rugged, no-nonsense veteran, known as one of the league’s toughest customers, gave the Pacers not only a skilled player but a locker-room leader.
“More than anybody on our team,” Vogel said of West’s impact. “When he came in with his approach, his professionalism and his seriousness, the last two years, it was probably the biggest factor on our team, in terms of changing our culture.”
Thibodeau added: “He’s a great leader. If you talk to the people, I’ve talked to some of the coaches that have coached him and I’ve coached some of the players that he’s played with, so I have a pretty good understanding of who he is. I’ve watched him closely, and the guy has had a remarkable career. You can tell by the fact that his team always wins, his demeanor on the court, his work. He has the ability to unite his team.”
But beyond how this Indiana squad came to be and how the Bulls are now in the position of trying to reassert their divisional dominance, a process that began by defending their home court Saturday, as well as potentially beginning to recapture the spirit of what has made them one of the league’s elite, is the simple fact that mutual respect aside, each team views the other as being in its path toward the next step in its progression.
“Well, you have two teams that are competing for the same thing. Everyone likes to see great competition where guys are going after each other, and hopefully that’s what they’ll see,” Thibodeau said. “For our guys, I don’t want them to get wrapped up in what happened or what’s going to happen. Just concentrate on improvement and our next opponent. The only thing we’re thinking about right now is how we can get better against Charlotte. That’s it.”
Thibodeau can stick to that story if he wants, but it’s clear that Saturday’s win — quietly, the Bulls’ third in a row after a rough start to the season — was at least partly motivated by the Bulls' loss at Indiana earlier in the month.
“We were just being real physical at the rim. Every game comes down to — even if you want to say between the Heat, Indiana, all our rivals — it comes down to the offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, the hustle plays,” Taj Gibson explained. “It comes down to those early and late in the games, and it’s a testament to the wins and you see last time, they dominated us on the boards in Indiana and they really didn’t like that, so we just came back and played harder.”
Teammate Luol Deng chimed in: “We just beat a very good team that’s playing really well, and they had the momentum. They had a good winning streak and were playing well. I thought we played well down there, except the last eight minutes, and tonight, we just made sure we played the whole game.”
To that, Stephenson, the brashest Pacer, had a general message, but one that certainly included the Bulls: “We’re trying to bring it to anybody, any team. We feel like we’re better than them. We’ve got more bodies and we’ve got better pieces, and we’re so deep that we all feel like we’re unstoppable.”
To be continued in March.