Nobody, not even Bulls fans with the most Rose-colored glasses (see what I did there), could have foreseen Chicago's rise to 62 wins and the league's best record. Nobody could have expected Derrick Rose to get this good, this fast. Nobody could have known that Tom Thibodeau would go straight from career assistant to arguably the NBA's best coach. It's been an amazing year for the Bulls. If it's punctuated by a short playoff run, well, that would be quite a letdown. Don't expect it to happen.
Thibodeau's obsession with staying in the moment has already become a running gag in the Chicago media. To wit: Before the Bulls' last regular-season game against New Jersey, Thibodeau was befuddled when asked about the fact that the league had announced the game time for Saturday's first game against the Pacers. With the noon tip-off, reporters understandably wanted to know how that might affect the team's preparations. Thibodeau seemed quite surprised that any scheduling vis a vis the playoffs had already been conducted. That's just the way he is. He denies tomorrow and yesterday. Today is all that matters. With Thibodeau, each game, each quarter, is a unique challenge and in every challenge, there is a path fraught with traps and obstacles. Sure, that's boderline paranoia, but Thibodeau will have the Bulls ready.
Chicago won three of four from Indiana this season, but the Pacers won the only game played since Frank Vogel took over as head coach from Jim O'Brien on Jan. 30. In fact, O'Brien's last game was Indiana's Jan. 29 game in Chicago. The Pacers' win over the Bulls at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 18 was the only intradivisional game Chicago lost this season. The remarkably consistent Bulls never lost more than two games in a row all season. They lost a game by more than 12 points just once and that game was played way back on Dec. 1. Any team hoping to knock off the postseason's top overall seed is going to have to match Thibodeau's focus, preparation and consistency of message.
WHEN CHICAGO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.2 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
Chicago Offensive Rating: 109.9 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
Indiana Defensive Rating: 107.7 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
On the defensive end, the Bulls climbed into the top spot of the efficiency ratings before the middle of December--and stayed there. The offense wasn't as lofty, but did gradually improve through the season. Chicago was middling in most areas offensively except for a fourth-place finish in offensive rebounding percentage. Nevertheless, the Bulls improved by nearly five points per 100 possessions over last season. A big part of that was an offensive system that favored three-point shots over the long twos that plagued the team under Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls got more looks at the rim and behind the arc, and also shot more free throws. Thibodeau favors ball-sharing and ball-reversal, and draws up plays tailored to exploit both specific matchups and the individual strengths of his players. And there is always Rose, there to bail out any stagnant possession and to take over the decision-making when the game enters crunch time.
Strategy aside, the Chicago attack begins and ends with Rose, who emerged as a full-fledge superstar in his third NBA season. The soon-to-be-MVP put up a usage rate of nearly 34 percent but, in doing so, posted a career-best .550 True Shooting Percentage. He went from taking about 3.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc to taking more than 20 percent from long range and improved his accuracy from out there to 33.2 percent. He went to the line more and even increased his assist rate by more than 50 percent. It was an awe-inspiring show. In four games against Indiana, Rose averaged 27 points per game, putting up a 35.2 percent usage rate and a .556 True Shooting Percentage.
Overall, the Bulls put up a 111.1 Offensive Rating in the four meetings against the Pacers. For pace-based reasons, there is a persistent tendency to think of Indiana as an offense-first team. In fact, the Pacers rank considerably higher on the defensive end of the floor. At the same time, the Pacers were quite a bit better on defense before the coaching change, to the tune of 3.1 points per 100 possessions. The tradeoff for offense proved to be worthwhile as the Pacers finished 20-18 under Vogel. Nevertheless, Indy can't get away with allowing the 111.1 figure to the Bulls now that we're into the playoffs.
What can the Pacers do? First, Indiana has to seal off the defensive glass. The Bulls grabbed more than a quarter of their misses against the Pacers, below their overall season mark but still too many extra opportunities for a team that needs every advantage it can get. Carlos Boozer averaged 20 points and 11.3 rebounds in the three games he played against Indiana. Vogel might be tempted to use Jeff Foster, who averaged 11.3 boards in 24.1 minutes against Chicago, at the four to combat Chicago's advantage in the paint. That might be too much of a hit on the Pacers' offense. Vogel could use small-ball lineups to create floor-spacing mismatches on the other end, but then he'd be losing the production of Tyler Hansbrough, who torched the Bulls in two games in the regular season.
So expect the Bulls to play plenty of inside-out basketball with Rose and Boozer. Darren Collison isn't a bad defender at the point for Indiana, but doesn't have the strength to keep Rose from getting to where he needs to get. If Boozer gets going as well, the Pacers are in trouble. However, if Boozer is contained, the Pacers ability to hang close could hinge on Danny Granger's interest in defending Luol Deng. The matchup between small forwards is probably the most interesting one of the series.
WHEN INDIANA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 93.3 possessions per 48 minutes (7th NBA)
Indiana Offensive Rating: 106.2 points per 100 possessions (22nd NBA)
Chicago Defensive Rating: 101.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
If you want to judge the Pacers' attack strictly on the Offensive Rating they put up under Vogel (108.7), then you're still talking about a bottom-half offense. Against the Bulls, we're talking bottom-bottom: Indiana put up a collective 97.2 Offensive Rating in four games against Chicago.
The Pacers' best chance for creating mismatches is by creatively using their four-position. Hansbrough, Foster, Mike Dunleavy, Granger and James Posey can all spot some minutes at power forward and each presents a different skillset. That strategy doesn't work as well against the Bulls. A face-up four can give Boozer trouble, so at times Thibodeau will have Boozer man up against low-block players such as Roy Hibbert, despite the size disparity. Joakim Noah will sometimes chase the four instead. However, entering the postseason, Noah's mobility is a bit limited due to leg problems. During the regular season, Taj Gibson enjoyed the best per-minute plus-minus of any player on the Bulls against Indiana. That makes sense because Gibson is the Bulls' most versatile frontcourt defender, capable of taking away whomever Vogel throws out at the four.
As mentioned, Hansbrough gave the Bulls fits in the two games he played against them, averaging 20.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting. You get the feeling that as long as Hansbrough doesn't get taken behind the woodshed too often by Boozer on the Bulls' end, his ability to work the baseline and draw fouls in the paint will be a key part of Indiana's attack.
Obviously, the Pacers need to shoot well. At times this season, Indiana was able to get on the kind of roll offensively, especially from three-point range, that made the Pacers look virtually unstoppable. Unfortunately, that always turned out to be fool's gold. Few teams were as inconsistent from game to game as Indiana. Collison shot 34.5 percent in four starts against Chicago. He's got to do better than that. Even moreso, Hibbert has to be a factor. He averaged just 6.1 points and shot 31 percent in the four games against Chicago. If he can't successfully work the low block against the Bulls' stout, deep post-defending contingent, the Bulls will choke off any points-in-the-paint opportunities. That might leave a few looks on the perimeter, but no team is as good at rotating and closing out on shooters as Chicago.
You can't discuss a team's offense without a comment about its best player. Granger did fine against Chicago; he averaged 20 points in three games but shot just 36.7 percent from the field. He's got a tough chore against Deng. Chicago's help defense is so good that even if he can aggressively drive the ball, he'll still be forced to surrender the rock in the paint, and setting up teammates isn't Granger's strong suit. Meanwhile, Deng is so good on the ball and has such a long reach, it'll be difficult for Granger to be efficient by living on the perimeter. Simply put, for Indiana to have any hope of good offense in this series, we're going to have to see a Danny Granger we haven't seen all season.
As with any long series, there are plenty of individual matchups worth watching. But that's more interesting from a hoop-head standpoint than from a competitive perspective. The Bulls won 25 more games than Indiana this season for a reason. The Pacers could always steal a game by getting on a roll from three-point range. Aside from that, it's difficult to see Indiana winning a game in this series.
Bulls in 4
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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