INDIANAPOLIS — In a quirk of the NBA schedule, following a season-long six consecutive home games, the Bulls have a home-and-home series against the Central Division rival Pacers, albeit mixed in with two contests against the somewhat less competitive 76ers.
After not having played since November, the divisional foes have evolved, with the Bulls thriving in 2014 amidst less lofty expectations and the Pacers hitting a rough patch as of late, though they continue to lead the Eastern Conference. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau put things in perspective prior to his team’s morning shootaround Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“It’s similar to the beginning of the season. We played them twice early and then there’s a long break. I’m not worried about the second one. I’m just worried about tonight,” he explained. “To me, you prepare the same way. I think you guys [the media] get up for certain teams and overlook others. We understand that everyone is capable of winning in this league. You can’t get to this league without having great talent. You have to be ready every night. Hopefully you establish a routine of preparation and take it step by step.
“When you study championship basketball, it’s built this way. They have great size up front. They have quality depth. They play inside out. They share the ball. Great defense. Great rebounding. They put the team first. I think Frank (Vogel) has done a great job with them. They’ve got great direction from their management. We have great respect for them,” the coach went on to say. “You’re not close to 70 games into the season. Over the course of the season, your team evolves. If you practice the right way, you’re going to build habits. We’re all chasing the same thing. We’re chasing Miami. They’re the defending champion. Throughout the course of the season, you’re trying to build habits and have the belief you can be successful against anybody. From that standpoint, I think we are similar.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, following Indiana’s walk-through session, took the bait, as far as the underlying implication that the two teams could potentially meet in the second round of the postseason.
“I’ll tell you where it’s valuable: from a coach’s standpoint and preparing for a team you haven’t seen in three months, as opposed to a team you saw 48 hours ago. That’s easier. There’s less work involved with it,” Vogel said. “But I also think probably what you’re alluding to is playoff adjustments. When you’re playing in the playoffs, you play a team and you’ve got to make adjustments two days later and I think that’s what these two games are going to feel like. So I think from that standpoint, it’ll be good for our guys to dial into adjustments.”
Vogel also acknowledged that the Bulls and Pacers play a similar brand of basketball.
“I think going against their defense will be good for our offense. You don’t execute every cut, every screen, every setup, they’ll embarrass you and stifle you and your offense. So certainly it’ll be a good test for us and hopefully help us improve,” he observed. “For us, we’ve got great defensive talent and we really work at it. We work at the defensive end and we’ve got guys that care, and a solid scheme. And obviously Thibs has got his guys as prepared as anybody, as maybe the league has seen in some time in terms of how much they work and how tied together they are.”
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Thibodeau countered: “I think they’re good on both sides of the ball. They play a power game. They’re inside out. They share the ball. We know how good they are. Their record says how good they are.”
Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah chimed in: “They’re very good, they’re a very good team. They have a lot of talent. It’s going to be an exciting game.”
One person with a unique view of the situation is Bulls backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who filled the same role for the Pacers last season. The floor general, who has thrived since his December arrival in Chicago after an up-and-down campaign in Indiana, believes his former team is one of the NBA’s elite squads and thinks that some of their motivation comes from their deep run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, where they lost to the eventual champion Heat in seven games.
“Yeah, definitely. When you lose a game like that and have a chance to go to the NBA Finals, it’s going to be something that your summer builds on and I think they did that, and coming in, they had that on their mind,” Augustin said. “I knew they had a good team coming back, pretty much the same team from last year that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They work hard every day. It’s matter of time before they got better and better. They’re playing great. They won 50 games in the East and they’re the No. 1 team in the East, and they’re doing great.”