Like it or not, Pacers are a legit rival for Bulls

Like it or not, Pacers are a legit rival for Bulls

October 18, 2013, 3:00 pm
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Derrick Rose has a knack for phrasing things a certain way, in such a fashion that his words can often be parsed, misinterpreted and taken out of context. That said, when the point guard claimed he doesn't see a rivalry between his Bulls and the Indiana Pacers, it shouldn't be taken at face value.

It should be understood that the last time the Bulls and Pacers met in the playoffs, during Rose’s 2010-11 MVP campaign, Indiana was an upstart bunch — second in the Central Division, but the eighth-seeded team in the playoffs — and while they didn’t shy away from physical play against the Bulls, who had earned the NBA’s best regular-season record that season, they were by no means their equal. Still, due to Rose’s ACL injury a year later, he missed when the improved Pacers challenged the eventual champion Heat in a second-round playoff series, not to mention last spring, when Indiana seized control of the division in his absence and went on to push Miami to seven games in the conference finals.

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Thus, when Rose’s lasting memory of the Pacers was a team without rugged veteran power forward David West and before the emergence of swingman Paul George to All-Star status, the following statement makes a little more sense: “People say it’s a rivalry, but I don’t really see it.

“I think the team that was more like a rival was when Darren Collison was on the team. That’s when it was more like a rivalry. But this team is a great team. They’ve already proven themselves last year, by making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. If anything, probably in a year or two, they could become a rival. But right now, people say it’s a rivalry. I just don’t see it right now,” Rose said after the Bulls’ morning shootaround Friday at the United Center. “I think it was more like that rivalry feeling, where we thought they were going to have that same team for a long period of time. Then, they ended up going different ways, picking up different guys and I think this team, I think in the next year or two, if both teams have the same team, that’s when they’ll become a rival.”

Now, going back to the aforementioned logic — Miami was the team that ousted the Rose-led Bulls in his last full postseason — as well as the fact that the Heat have won the last two NBA titles, it also rings true when the Chicago native, asked if Miami was instead the Bulls’ rival, he responded in the affirmative, if reluctantly.

“If you want to say that, yeah, Miami,” he said. “For sure, Miami.”

That doesn’t mean the Pacers haven’t earned Rose’s respect. Think back to last season, when Rose missed the entire year recovering from his devastating knee injury.

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The one regular-season game he attended and sat on the bench for, on the road, no less? Indiana. Could be a coincidence, but when asked about the improved Pacers—Indiana revamped their mediocre second unit, adding crafty veteran power forward Luis Scola via trade, while ex-Bulls point guard C.J. Watson and sharpshooter Chris Copeland arrived in free agency—before the Bulls’ preseason opener in Indianapolis, Rose’s response back then was telling.

“They proved their point in the league,” he said at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “They made it far last year, to the conference finals and they have young players, where we’re going to grow old playing against each other in this league, especially with the players that they have. They have good players, old veterans. Them adding Scola, other players like that, it’s just going to get tougher. But at the same time, we’ve been putting in our work and practicing hard, too.”

Semantics or not, it certainly sounds like Rose takes the Pacers pretty seriously, particularly (if we’re picking apart every word the man says) that “we’re going to grow old playing against each other in this league” part and even without him last season, a team goal, which was went unrealized in the injury-riddled campaign, was to try to maintain control of the Central.

With former All-Star Danny Granger back from essentially missing all of last season due to his own knee injury, behemoth center teaming up with West on the interior, emerging shooting guard Lance Stephenson and steady hometown hero George Hill in the backcourt, and the aforementioned George, the recent recipient of a max contract as the face of the franchise, there’s a reason many observers believe that Indiana, not their regional rival in Chicago, is the squad best equipped to dethrone the Heat.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau acknowledged that both teams are basically in a similar position.

“We’re all battling for the same thing. They’re deep, they’re talented, so we know how good they are. They have size, toughness, quickness, they play together, they play smart, they’re well coached. They’re one of the elite teams in the East for sure,” he explained. “When you can add a guy like Scola, it says a lot. C.J. Watson, he’s a big-time player. Those guys are starters. I don’t know whether Granger starts or comes off the bench; he’s still an All-Star talent. Copeland is another skilled four.

“They’re built to take an injury and they have quality depth so when they go to the bench they don’t drop off. So you have to bring it the entire time. They test you in a lot of different ways. They have shooting, a post-game, pick-and-roll game. Hill is very underrated, Stephenson is tough. Paul George is terrific. Then you look at Hibbert and David West, that’s a lot of talent,” the coach added. “They’re loaded. They had a great year last year. They’ve added some quality depth. their second unit is just as good as the first. So they’re a deep team, they’re talented, well-balanced, well-coached. So they’ll be a challenge.”

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There’s some genuine enmity involved when it comes to the Pacers and Bulls, displayed in the preseason opener, which was more physical, intense and had a unique atmosphere for that time of year (Rose’s return, as well as Granger’s for the home fans, undoubtedly played a part in that) than usual, even featuring sidelined All-Star center Joakim Noah, in street clothes, exchanging barbs with West from the Bulls’ bench. 

Still, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel—who joked that Oct. 4 exhibition game, the first of four meetings in October and November, was “the biggest preseason game in the history of the NBA”—like Thibodeau, insisted that there’s plenty of mutual respect.

“I expect them to compete for the East and compete for the championship. Any Tom Thibodeau team is going to be so well-coached that they’re among the top of the league, but you add a Derrick Rose to the mix, with the talent and the warriors that they have—with Deng and Boozer and Noah and Gibson, and the way Butler played last season—I think they’ve got a really legit chance to do some real damage,” said Vogel—named Indiana’s interim coach halfway during the season that ended at the hands of the Bulls—before the first preseason game. “Obviously Mike Dunleavy [a former Pacer himself] coming in off the bench is going to give them a spark, so just the utmost respect for what they’re doing.”

Granger, the Pacers’ longest-tenured player—similar to Bulls’ small-forward counterpart Luol Deng, his contract expires after this season—cautioned that it’s still the preseason, but admitted, “It is the Bulls and they’re still going to be there at the end of the year.

“They’re definitely a contender, as well. They’re going to be our rival again this year,” continued Granger, who’s happy to see Rose back, so that if the Pacers have the opportunity to take the upper hand in the rivalry in legitimate fashion. “You want to see [the Bulls] at full strength because you want to know that to get where you want to go, you had to beat the best. You had to beat the best team that given year. You don’t want any asterisks on your successes.”

Whether they state that clearly or not, the Bulls feel the exact same way.

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