INDIANAPOLIS — If facing what was expected to be the worst team in the league this season didn’t get the Bulls in sync, then perhaps taking on their prime divisional competition could do the trick.
The Pacers, still the NBA’s lone undefeated team after their Tuesday-night road win over Detroit, play host to the struggling Bulls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a Wednesday-evening matchup that will prove both a test for the visitors and a contest in which they attempt to solve the various ills that have been plaguing them this season. But the likes of All-Star swingman Paul George, who is playing like an MVP candidate in this extremely early juncture of the season, a one-man defensive force in center Roy Hibbert and the rest of a rugged, deeper Indiana squad doesn’t seem like the ideal elixir for surprising defensive inconsistency, stretches of offensive deficiency and superstar point guard Derrick Rose finding his regular-season rhythm.
Or just maybe, in the midst of what appears to be a mini-crisis, playing a fellow expected title contender is exactly the type of challenge the Bulls need to fully to match their preseason hype.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Rose said. “If we don’t come out with the same aggression like we do in practice and what we’ve been talking about, we’re going to get our butts whipped up there because they’ve been playing great basketball. We’ve got to come together, and we’re on the road. Usually, when we’re on the road, that’s when we focus.
“It’s three games in. Our next game is a big game because it’s the next game. It’s not because we’re playing Indiana or who we’re playing,” continued the former league MVP, who had a successful exhibition debut at Indiana, then scored 32 points in a preseason win at the United Center. “We’re just anxious to get back out there and to prove ourselves.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, like Rose, refused to make more of the matchup because of the opponent.
“It’s significant because it’s the next game,” the coach said. “You have to prepare yourself for everybody. You have to be locked in to what’s in front of you. You have to understand what goes into winning. When you start taking shortcuts, you get into trouble."
Thibodeau then ticked off the different qualities that have made the Pacers, buoyed by the massive Hibbert’s size in the middle and the athletic George’s versatility on the wing, an elite defensive team: “Size. Toughness. They play together. They make great effort. That’s the biggest thing.”
Bulls newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr., a former Pacers player of semi-recent vintage, expounded on Indiana’s strength on the defensive end of the floor.
“Well, they have some size inside with Hibbert, who does a great job of protecting the rim, and they have good wings. They have length, they can guard, they get out in the passing lane. They do a lot of things well, they are well coached and they have good principles. That makes them one of the best in the league,” the veteran swingman explained. “I think both teams recognize each other as serious contenders. Every time we step on the court, whether it’s preseason or regular season, we know we’re going to get the other team’s best shot. It’s no different (Wednesday) night. It’s an important game for both teams, and hopefully we can go in there and take care of business.
“Being out of sync, not getting it down right now, we have to go in there and get it done more than anything, regardless of opponent. Certainly this is a premier opponent and it will be tougher, but we need to get a win,” continued Dunleavy, who is obviously familiar with the Central Division, having sandwiched a stint in Milwaukee between stops in Indiana and Chicago. “It’s nice to go back and see some people, but at the same time playing in the Central Division with whether it’s with the Bucks and Bulls, it’s a rivalry. You have to go in there and take care of business and win. It’s, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ You can see people after the game, but it’s about winning, really.”
Dunleavy could actually testify to the Pacers’ physical nature after being a central figure in the two final Indiana-Milwaukee games of the 2011-12 season, in which he accidentally broke former teammate Tyler Hansbrough’s nose on a hard foul and was then the target of a flagrant foul in the two teams’ subsequent meeting, setting off a brawl. But when it comes to Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, who became interim coach during Dunleavy’s final season in Indiana — ironically, after Jim O’Brien was fired following a Jan. 29, 2011, loss in Chicago — and coached the team in the first-round playoff series loss to the Bulls, the son of a former NBA player, coach and general manager (Mike Dunleavy Sr.) had nothing but positive things to say about the coach’s success.
“I’m not surprised because he is a great person, he’s a positive person and really knows the game. I think his personality has had a great impact on the game. Certainly with his knowledge of the game and he knows how to coach a team. That mix of getting along with the players as well as putting them into a position to succeed is a pretty good recipe for success,” Dunleavy said. “He was an assistant under Jim O’Brien. Jim is a guy whose voice is heard a lot, he did all the talking. Frank didn’t do a whole lot of stuff with the team, but he did a lot individually. He worked with me on a lot of stuff and worked with guys individually. He always had a good way about him, and you could tell it would pay off in some fashion. Here he is, one of the premier coaches in the league.”