Stating that the Bulls’ success ended in the Michael Jordan era, as Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George recently asserted, is a bit extreme, just as Derrick Rose’s comment that he didn’t see Indiana as a rival wasn’t quite an accurate statement.
But regardless of denials about the other’s status, both teams know that they are the two main combatants for Central Division supremacy, as well as the strongest challengers to prevent two-time defending-champion Miami from getting a three-peat. At 9-0 and the lone undefeated team left in the NBA coming into Saturday night’s game, the Pacers had a streak at stake. The Bulls — with Rose back in the lineup after missing Friday night’s win in Toronto to nurse his sore right hamstring — had the task of beating a fellow perceived title contender and both teams had plenty of animosity, not to mention pride.
It’s still early in the regular season, but based on both their start and how they finished the last campaign, the Pacers now appear to be one of the league’s elite teams, something the Bulls couldn’t claim before Saturday, given their previous inconsistent play. But after a 110-94 triumph at the United Center, the Bulls again appear to be the team observers expected, even if Rose wouldn’t admit to having any added motivation.
“I don’t get into that, man. For us, we know that when we play them, it’s going to be a tough game, and we just take it that way,” the point guard said after scoring a season-high 20 points. “Every night that we play them, they’re going to be the ones talking, and we can’t really feed into that. We’ve got to play the way we normally know how to play, and that’s hard and that’s together.”
Similarly, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, another fiery competitor, wouldn’t lend any credence to the notion that the Bulls and Pacers, despite their many heated matchups and mirroring physical, defensive-oriented styles, have a rivalry.
“Oh, you guys (the media) get into all that. I get into competition, that’s what I get into. We have to just be ready when the ball goes up. You guys talk about all that other nonsense,” the coach explained before the contest. “Emotion is part of the game. You get your intensity from your concentration and effort. If we’re going to rely on emotion and neglect the other parts, it’s not going to be very good. You have to put everything you have into it, but emotion is good, as long as it’s under control.”
At least his counterpart, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, could be somewhat honest about the relationship between the two Central Division opponents, or lack thereof.
“I think it comes down to, not so much our neighbor in our division, the Chicago Bulls, but we’re playing against a team that we consider a championship contender. So whether that’s the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to fuel the engines, for sure. So it’s a little more than a mid-November game type of feel,” Vogel said. “I don’t think our team likes anybody we play against. Even if we liked them, once the ball gets thrown up, we don’t like them anymore, so I think that goes for everybody.”
Taking it up a notch, Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, in the midst of an individual breakout season, admitted that matchups against the Bulls are dates circled on Indiana’s calendar.
“It’s like a rivalry game,” he told CSNChicago.com. “We take this game real personal and serious because we’re about two hours away. I think this game is going to be a big game because I think they feel like we were celebrating too much last game, at our house, so I think they’re going to really bring it to us. So I think we’ve really got to come prepared and focused.”
And leave it to Stephenson’s fellow Brooklyn native, Bulls big man Taj Gibson, to add a unique perspective. Gibson actually works out with some of the Pacers, such as George, during the summer in California, but that off-court respect ends as soon as the NBA season begins.
“It feels good to beat them because they’re our rival. Every time we’ve played them since I’ve been in a Bulls jersey, it’s been tough. It feels good. It’s hard because you go against guys you work out with in the summer, especially between me and Paul. But regular season, we’re enemies. It’s a rivalry. We have no time to slap fives or anything like that. We’re both striving for one thing. Both teams are looking to go deep in the playoffs and fight for a championship, and there’s no love lost,” Gibson acknowledged. “We really weren’t worried about their streak. We were just worried about us getting wins, defending the home court, just getting better. We wanted to build on the win from last night, Toronto, and keep pushing forward because we understand we have a tough schedule. We play a lot of tough teams on the road early.”
For the Bulls, Saturday was more important from a headed-in-the-right-direction stand point, but the accomplishment of not only knocking off their rival but giving the Pacers their first loss in such convincing fashion doesn’t exactly hurt in the added-satisfaction category.