Could Bulls Defeat Pacers in Playoffs?
This is probably all moot. With the Miami HEAT staring history in the face with their win streak that just won’t end, what’s the point of debating whether the Indiana Pacers or Chicago Bulls are truer contenders in the Eastern Conference? The upstart Pacers have made huge strides this season and look like the next big up-and-comer in the East, and the Bulls are always well-coached and work incredibly hard, even without Derrick Rose, but does either have a prayer of beating the HEAT in a seven-game series?
Despite that, with the playoffs only a few weeks away, it’s time to start talking about which teams are true contenders in each conference, and the Bulls and Pacers are unquestionably two of the more notable teams in the East outside of South Beach. So should something happen to LeBron James, we’ll immediately turn to these two teams as possibilities for the NBA Finals.
That’s what makes this debate worth having. With that said, who’s the more serious contender this upcoming postseason: Indiana or Chicago?
The Case for Chicago
It’s hard to have this conversation without knowing whether or not Derrick Rose will be playing in the postseason this year and in what capacity, but even without the former MVP, the Bulls have been a reasonably respectable team this past season despite their lowered expectations.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the business because he can get practically anybody to play hard and play defense, and that’s been enough to squeeze All-Star campaigns out of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.
Chicago as a team has overachieved, and a lot of that comes from their continued defensive dominance. The Bulls are third in the league in opponent points per game, sixth in opponent field goal percentage, third in opponent three-point percentage and seventh in team rebounds. These are areas where they’re typically strong, but remaining so high in these categories without their best player helps explain how they’ve managed to end up six games above .500 and still in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Rose could come back any day, but with only 14 games left in the Bulls’ season, there’s no telling how much he’ll even play. Guys returning from long injuries tend to start on minute limits, which will retard Rose’s ability to gel with new teammates (he still hasn’t shared the floor with Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson, for example) in time for the playoffs. He’s been practicing for several weeks, but a point guard needs to figure out his teammates’ best spots in game situations, and that takes time. It’s time the Bulls probably don’t have.
Without him, Chicago is just another middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference playoff team with zero chance of toppling Miami or Indiana in a seven-game series. With Rose, it’s a different story. Maybe.
The Case for Indiana
The Pacers have won three of their four meetings with the Bulls this year, but more importantly, they’ve also held their own against the HEAT the last two seasons as well. This season, Indiana is 2-1 against Miami, and don’t forget that they were at one point up 2-1 on the HEAT in last year’s playoffs. Indy is in no way intimidated by the league’s top teams, and that’s a major advantage for them in this discussion.
It’s also worth noting that, despite the fact that Chicago’s defense and rebounding have been stellar, Indiana has been better than Chicago in every single defensive category mentioned above. The Pacers are second in opponent points per game, and first in opponent field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and rebounds—all numbers that clearly prove they’ve been the best defensive unit in the league this season.
Even coaching, which has been a strength for the Bulls because of how good Thibodeau is, can’t be considered a huge advantage this year because Frank Vogel has closed that gap by proving he’s among the most capable head coaches in the entire league.
The caveat for Indy is their inexperience. Outside of David West, this is a pretty young team. Danny Granger would bring veteran presence to the floor, but based on how he played in his five miserable games this season, one has to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off without him in the postseason. George Hill, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert are all still relatively inexperienced NBA players without a ton of deep playoff experience, while much of Chicago’s roster appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals a couple of seasons ago.
And the Winner Is?
Despite all of that, the Pacers have been the better team this year without their own previous leading scorer in Granger. Rose is better, obviously, and more important to his team, but it’s not like losing your best player from the previous year is an excuse for mediocrity. Both Indiana and Chicago have weathered it well, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Without Rose, the Bulls probably aren’t getting out of the first round, no matter whom they play. Indiana, meanwhile, is basically guaranteed home-court advantage and a return to the Conference Semifinals.
If the current seeds stick, the Bulls and Pacers will face off in the first round, as they did two years ago, making this particular argument all the more relevant. But unless Chicago finds a way to get some momentum (they’ve lost six of their last nine games), this is an open-and-shut case. Indiana is much stronger this year, and at this point, there probably isn’t a whole lot even Rose can do about that.