They say familiarity breeds contempt. In the recent history of the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, that’s certainly the case. They see a lot of each other, and the more they see each other, the less they like each other.
It's not a new rivalry by any stretch. In 1998, Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller were going at it in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan averaged better than 31 points a contest; Miller had just 17.
Then there was this classic moment, for which words can never do justice, so just watch.
To a degree, the legacy of this rivalry has been one-sided, with the Pacers coming just short of the Bulls. That Reggie Miller bow is a nice little synecdoche for the entire rivalry. Just when the Pacers think they've got something, the Bulls snatch it away.
It's little wonder they have a bit of a little-brother complex. Chicago fans even take over their own stadium, the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, when the teams play in Indiana.
Chicago also has the lifetime-series advantage. In all, the two teams have played 176 times, and the Bulls have won 95 of the contests. The Bulls have won both playoff series as well.
But Indiana feels that the times, they are a-changin'. In the Pacers' estimation, little brother has gotten bigger, and it's time for some payback. Big brother, however, is not ready to concede.
So whenever these two teams play, they play hard. Heck, even when these teams met in the preseason, they were going at it—twice!
The current antagonists go back three years now.
In the summer of 2010, the Bulls made Tom Thibodeau their head coach. Midway through 2010-11 season, the Pacers hired Frank Vogel to fill that role. Since then, the two teams have squared off 14 times in the regular season and postseason combined. The Bulls have won eight of those games, outscoring the Pacers by an average score of 95.4 to 91.5.
With these two teams though, it’s not just about the results. It’s as close as the NBA comes to being the MMA. In those games, there have been a total of 606 fouls committed.
The extra violence tends to favor the Pacers. In games Indiana has won, there have been an average of 46.3 fouls. In games the Bulls have won, there have only been 41.0. That may be why the Pacers usually seem to be setting the tone.
When teams beat on one another like that, it generally causes a certain amount of disdain—especially when they’re not all your friendly neighborhood fouls.
The nastiness got underway when the teams squared off in the first round of the playoffs in 2011. Some of the infractions were interpreted as either “just playoff fouls” or “outright dirty plays” depending on the foul, the perpetrator and the team which has your loyalty.
The flying elbow drop from Jeff Foster onto Luol Deng’s head here is one example.
Then there’s the throat chop to Derrick Rose.
Of course, the Bulls aren’t exactly Tibetan about this either. Kurt Thomas laid out Tyler Hansbrough with his elbow here.
And Joakim Noah lured Josh McRoberts into a technical that came with an ejection to end the series here. (Sorry for the video “quality”; it’s all I can find).
According to Roman Modrowski of ESPN Chicago, Danny Granger, after that game, was quick to protest Noah’s play, invoking one of the worst words you can use to describe another player: the “c” word.
He pulled a cowardly move. He cheap-shotted a couple of my teammates, and one gets thrown out ...
The refs never catch what he did ... it's cowardly. And I'm going to say something about it. I wanted to say something about it all the way to the game was over. I just don't think the game should be played that way. You can play hard and fight and battle, but when you start cheap-shotting people it gets out of hand.
Bulls fans everywhere laughed at the notion of the Pacers complaining about “cheap shots” after a series which saw more than a few delivered by the complainant, and on a play where the initial problem was the two-handed push by McRoberts anyway.
The violence didn’t stop with that series. It continues.
Even the little guys get in on the action. Witness Nate Robinson’s outright assault on Lance Stephenson.
That was uncalled for, whichever way your loyalties lie.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty more examples.
It shouldn't come as a shock, as the teams are similarly built and play with a similar, defense-first mentality. In fact, in many ways the two teams are mirror images. Both are built around a pair of athletic wings who play both ends of the court. The Pacers have Paul George and (occasionally) Danny Granger. The Bulls have Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng.
The Pacers have an offensive-minded power forward in David West; the Bulls counter with Carlos Boozer. The two teams have what many would consider two of the top-five defensive centers in the NBA in Indiana's Roy Hibbert and Chicago's Noah.
They play the same style—stay tough in the paint, close out on threes and make opposing team's beat you making long twos. From 2011 to 2012, Chicago was the league's most efficient defense. Last year, it was Indiana.
In terms of composition and style, these two teams are just too much alike to get along. And that shows on the court.
Point-blank, these two teams don’t just play each other; they beat the snot out of each other.
And in the one area where there is a true distinction—at the point guard position—there's dissent as well.
Even seemingly innocuous verbiage is incendiary. As reported by Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, Derrick Rose landed a disguised and snide quip when questioned about the existence of the rivalry by saying:
People say that it's a rivalry, but I don't really see it. I say the team that is more like a rivalry is when Darren Collison was on the team. That one was more like a rivalry, but this team is a great team. They've already proven themselves last year by making it to the Eastern Conference finals.
“You’re good, you're just not worthy to be my rival,” is one heck of a taunt, especially one delivered to, not by, the reigning Central Division champions. Especially for a team already carrying a little-brother complex.
That sort of backhanded compliment (Collison? Really?) had George Hill, Collison’s replacement, furious. He told Hoopsworld's Lang Greene,
I don’t know how [Rose] can say we’re not rivals yet because we’ve been just as successful as they have been. But all I know right now is we’re the Central Division champions and for them, they have to come through us to get that. But if that’s what he believes, then that’s what he believes.
That might be a bit of stretch. Yes, the Pacers went to the Eastern Conference finals, but they never won 60 games, so it’s hard to agree they’ve accomplished “just as much.”
Also, to be fair to Rose, the Bulls are 7-3 in games against the Pacers when Rose started since Vogel took over as the head coach, and 4-1 in the preseason. So, it’s understandable if he sees an asterisk on Indiana’s division championship. The Pacers haven’t really gone through him yet. He has gone through them.
Now the stakes are higher than ever between these two teams, as both have aspirations of getting past the Miami Heat and then to the NBA championship. Realistically, either team can accomplish that. Of course, if they have to meet each other before getting to and possibly through the Heat, they could end up winning the battle but losing the war.
Ergo, finishing with the best record in the East—and earning the top seed with it—is more important than ever.
That’s why both teams will be playing every regular-season game against each other like it was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals—it might as well be. Whoever wins the Central Division this year will have a huge leg up come postseason. And the way these two teams play, don’t except these games to lack “playoff fouls.”