The time has come.
The moment for which the Indiana Pacers and their fan base have been waiting five years arrives today at 1 p.m. with Game 1 of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, at United Center.
While just making the playoffs, particularly with a season record of 37-45, is a fine accomplishment in itself, the Pacers have a tremendous opportunity in front of them. If Indiana is competitive each night — certainly within the realm of possibility — it can take significant steps forward in reviving the “passion” and “pride,” so to speak, in and around Indianapolis. We’re going to take a look at the matchups and how the Pacers can go about doing that.
By Drew Allen
Make no mistake: the Bulls are heavy favorites in this series, and rightfully so. It’s pretty hard to ignore an elephant in the room; in this case, it’s the NBA’s best defense and likely MVP. This amounts to what the experts have shared in their early analyses of this matchup, but are they telling the whole story when opining how Indiana stacks up against its Central Division rival?
If not, then let’s look further.
- Point guard. Sorry, Darren Collison. Derrick Rose appears to be a runaway NBA MVP after all he has accomplished this season. The third-year man out of Memphis can score, penetrate the lane, distribute, defend and … yes, play out of his mind against the Pacers. He’s done it in each of the four meetings beween the two teams this year, including the most recent meeting, a victory for Indiana in which Rose pulled a 40-plus-point miracle out of his hat to force overtime. At 13.2 points per game, Collison is capable of scoring with Rose on a good day, and backup A.J. Price is scrappy, but it’s just folly to think Indiana can completely match up with Rose.
- The perimeter. Here is where the Pacers can make things interesting. Obviously, Rose is going to get his, but aside from him, Chicago does not have a perimeter player with whom Indiana can’t at least maintain pace. Danny Granger and Luol Deng are about neck-and-neck in scoring (Granger holds a slight advantage at 20.5 points per game to Deng’s 17.4). Deng will certainly play Granger tight, so if the Pacers’ leading scorer can withstand pressure while shooting or can effectively attack the rim when forced to drive, Indiana can claim an advantage here. Keith Bogans isn’t much of a threat as the Bulls’ starting two-guard. Mike Dunleavy will get his, and Brandon Rush can be dangerous from 3-point range within the flow of the Pacers’ offense. Granted, that rhythm will surely be threatened by Chicago’s stingy defense, but if Indiana gets going, watch out.
- The post. It’s really strength vs. strength here. Roy Hibbert has struggled at times this season, but when he’s on, he can put up big offensive numbers in the paint with his post moves and hook shot. Joakim Noah, on the other hand, has been a stalwart on defense (when he’s been in the lineup). He ranks among the league’s leaders in blocks per game at 1.50 and averages 10.4 rebounds per game to round out a season double-double. Hibbert vs. Noah is one of the more unsung matchups in this series and should be among the most interesting ones to watch. At the forward spot, Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts are tough players who give you the most of what they have, but Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson might bring too much talent to the table. Boozer averages 17 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game, and Gibson ranks right up there with Noah in blocks while playing much more extensively this season. One thing’s for sure: we’ll see whether hard work really beats talent in the post.
Frank Vogel faces a tall task against Tom Thibodeau, a defensive mastermind who can stake a pretty strong claim to the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. Thibodeau has instilled a killer instinct in his squad that has me thinking it won’t be a matter of the Bulls’ coming out flat. That would make the Pacers’ winning a game or two all the more impressive.
It will happen, but once. Bulls in five.Follow paulmbanks