Central Division no longer a cakewalk with Pacers' presence

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Central Division no longer a cakewalk with Pacers' presence

Even with an off day before Friday's game against the Bucks, beyond Derrick Rose's postgame vow and the curious late-game Brian Scalabrine go-ahead shot attempt in the clutch (not to mention the fact that Scalabrine, a deep reserve, replaced Carlos Boozer, even with Taj Gibson unavailable), expect there to be some reverberations from the Bulls' loss Wednesday to the Pacers. Of course, there will probably be the usual proclamations about moving on, the defeat being in the past and the team's focus being on another Central Division opponent in Milwaukee -- let alone Sunday's showdown in Miami -- but one thing is clear: Indiana is no pushover.

At the beginning of last season, the class of the Central was supposed to be the Bulls and the Bucks, with not much perceived separation between the two. But as Milwaukee endured a multitude of injuries and free-agent acquisitions failed to jell, the Bulls exceeded expectations and ran away with the division en route to earning the top overall seed in the postseason and going to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile, the Pacers struggled at the outset and following an early-season loss at the United Center, veteran head coach Jim O'Brien was dismissed, replaced by young Frank Vogel. As interim head coach, Vogel shepherded his youthful squad into the playoffs -- but not before handing the Bulls their only divisional loss of the season -- as the East's eighth seed, where they engaged in a tougher-than-expected first-round series with the Bulls. While they went down in five games, the tenor of the matchup planted the seeds for Wednesday's clash.

"They try to play physical," Derrick Rose said afterward, in a somber Bulls locker room. "Theyre a very good team. Last spring, I think in the fourth quarter, they knew exactly what they were doing they didnt know. They were still trying to find their identity as a team. Now, they work from inside. Give it to their big men and see what they can create.

Added Ronnie Brewer: "They added some pieces. Theyve got a year under their belt playing under their coach. Theyre just a better team. Theyre playing team basketball, theyre executing on both ends of the floor and you can really tell because theyre winning games that theyre supposed to win."

"Some of the balls that we thought that we were going to come up with took a bounce for the Pacers and it's a testament to their hustle and their effort because they were down at half and played with a lot of energy."

And even games they're not supposed to win. Vogel was given the head job on a permanent basis during the offseason -- albeit with a veteran coaching staff hand-picked by top Pacers executive Larry Bird, including former top Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, Phil Jackson's right-hand man in L.A. -- and the Pacers were aggressive in the truncated free-agency period, signing former All-Star power forward David West, to go along with their quiet draft-day deal that brought combo guard George Hill, an Indianapolis native, from the Spurs, a move that was muffled by the then-impending lockout.

"Hes a very good player, been a good player in this league for a long time, very versatile. He can post, he can pop, put it on the floor. Hes a good player. Hes gotten more comfortable," grudgingly admitted frustrated Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "Hill's a starting-caliber player. They're good. They're very good."

It wasn't as if the cupboard was bare previously, as a team previously based around the scoring output of small forward Danny Granger -- a one-time All-Star, whose efficiency has waned as defenses have focused on shutting him down; it should be noted that the injured Luol Deng routinely gives Granger fits on both ends of the floot, an issue the Pacers didn't have to deal with Wednesday - -now has balance. Center Roy Hibbert continues to develop, point guard Darren Collison is a more than competent floor general, second-year swingman Paul George is widely regarded as one of the more underrated young players in the league and backup power forward Tyler Hansborough is an energetic irritant, but a high-level reserve, something the Bulls can certainly attest to.

"Paul George has got a great future in the league. All-around player, plays great defense, shoots the ball. His shootings improved, puts it on the floor. Theyre a well-balanced team," Thibodeau evaluated, "You cant give Granger any space. You make a body-position mistake against him, hes going to make you pay for it. Hes a very good player."

But it's more than just talent. The Pacers have taken on a blue-collar approach, something that has made them tops in the league in field-goal percentage defense, as well as an inside-out offensive attack that has diversified their offensive game from the outside jumper-happy strategy of years past. Additionally, the presence of the no-nonsense West, a key to the Hornets' success in previous seasons. and local product Hill, who comes from a winning background with San Antonio, have also made a major difference.

"Every year, you want to get better. I think going through some of the things these guys went through last year, I think the best experience is to play. Actually being out there and playing, and being a part of the game and I think just growing up. The way the games are coming this year, you don't have a whole lot of -- really, no practice time -- so all the experience is coming in the game and I think we're learning game by game," West told CSNChicago.com. "This is the best team, basically, in the NBA and we were able to get a win from them in a place where they're basically unbeatable.

"It's good for us, man. It's only one win and it's only a small part of what we have to do," he continued. "We want to be able to win on the road."

Added Granger: "It feels good. We haven't got a win here, I think, in the last 11 times we've played here, so just to come here and get the win, especially with them beating us in the playoffs, it feels good.

"Just the experience. We've got the experience, especially being a year older. We added D-West, George Hill, two guys that come from winning ballclubs, then our young guys growing up," he added. "Roy Hibbert's getting better, Paul George's getting better, Tyler Hansborough, Darren Collison."

Vogel, a confident, even brash type, injected the Pacers -- a deep team with both size and versatility -- with the belief they could pull off the unexpected, even saying so publicly in the midst of last spring's playoff series. That mindset has been furthered with not only the team's additions, but their success this season.

"The difference between this year's team and last year's team is we have confidence that we'll score at crunch time, we will score in the fourth quarter, and we didn't have that last year and it cost us the series here, and we believe that going into the fourth quarter that we can get stops and we can execute enough to score enough to win these close games," Vogel said Wednesday. "They were crushed that they didn't win last year. They believed that they were going to win last year. They're very driven and we're happy to get a 'W' tonight.

"You can still go on the road on a back-to-back and pull yourself together, have a gut-check effort, and come back and win a game," he continued, citing the Pacers' 56-point effort in a disappointing loss Tuesday. "Our guys are a tough-minded bunch.

"We believe we're one of the best defensive teams in the league and it was a strong effort for us."

Wednesday's win was just one game, but it was also a continued step in the right direction for Indiana. As the Bulls-Pacers' border war resumes -- after a hiatus, as both teams have seen down periods since Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller used to face off -- keep an eye on the postseason, though probably not in the first round this spring, as it wouldn't be surprising to see the newly-christened Bankers Life Fieldhouse host its own opening-round playoff series.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Gar Forman defends Jimmy Butler trade

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AP

Bulls Talk Podcast: Gar Forman defends Jimmy Butler trade

On the latest Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Vincent Goodwill recap the Bulls' busy NBA Draft and the decision to trade Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. 

Bulls general manager Gar Forman joins the panel for an exclusive interview. He breaks down why the organization decided to move the three-time All-Star. 

Click here to Bulls Talk Podcast.

Nikola Mirotic and why the Bulls traded their second-round pick

Nikola Mirotic and why the Bulls traded their second-round pick

The Bulls entered rebuild mode on Thursday night after they dealt Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. They acquired a pair of guards in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick which they used to select Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen.

But the Bulls opted not to continue adding youth to their roster when they sold their second-round pick, No. 38 overall, to the Golden State Warriors. That pick was Oregon power forward Jordan Bell, who many considered a late first-round prospect.

The move was perplexing for a team that hours earlier had traded away its franchise player to start a youth movement. But VP John Paxson said after the draft that the decision to move the pick was based on team depth, hinting at a significant move the Bulls will make in free agency.

"We had some wings on our board that we had targeted that were the only way we were going to keep that (No. 38) pick, and they went before us. And drafting Lauri (Markkanen), and the fact that we have, Niko’s a restricted free agent we intend to bring back, Bobby Portis, we didn’t want to add another big and that’s really all that was left on our board."

Both Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have said since the season ended that Mirotic, who will become a restricted free agent on July 1, is part of their future plans. The Bulls will be able to match any contract that another team offers Mirotic, and they intend to keep the 26-year-old in Chicago. After Butler's departure, Mirotic is now the longest tenured member of the Bulls. He's been with the team for three seasons.

The wings Paxson may have been referring to include Miami's Devon Reed (32nd overall to Phoenix), Kansas State's Wesley Iwundu (33rd overall to Orlando) or SMU's Semi Ojeleye (Boston, 37th overall). Point guards Juwan Evans (Oklahoma State) and Sterling Brown (SMU) were still on the board and potential options, but the Bulls were set on looking for wing help after receiving point guard Kris Dunn and shooting guard Zach LaVine in the Butler trade.

The Bulls frontcourt depth looks filled, as Cristiano Felicio is expected to return behind Brook Lopez. Mirotic, Portis, Markkanen and Joffrey Lauvergne should make up the power forward depth chart. Opting against using the 38th pick, which Golden State bought for a whopping $3.5 million, also leaves the Bulls with room to add a 13th player in the fall.

"It keeps us at 12 roster spots and gives us real flexibility for our roster," Paxson said. "So we didn’t just want to use up a roster spot on a player that we probably wouldn’t have kept."