Only Derrick Rose Can Keep Indiana Pacers from Central Division Title

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Only Derrick Rose Can Keep Indiana Pacers from Central Division Title
USA Today

Just when it looked like the Indiana Pacers could do no wrong, they went to Chicago and got shellacked by the Chicago Bulls.

More specifically, by Derrick Rose.

Prior to Saturday night's showdown with his division rivals, Rose was shooting 33.3 percent from the floor and boasting a ghastly player efficiency rating of 6.6. Those numbers will get a bump after Rose dropped 20 points and hit six of 11 threes against the Pacers.

Chicago's early-season reputation should get a bump as well. The Central Division had been all but decided when the Pacers were 9-0 and cruising past every opponent they faced. But in sports, the narrative changes with every result, and the Bulls' 110-94 win was a big one. It should serve as a reminder to everyone of how good this team can be when Rose is healthy.

It was indeed his best game of the year, and there are a couple of reasons to believe things will only get better if you're a Bulls fan.

Consider first the difference between this game and the first time the Bulls and Pacers faced each other on November 6. Then, Rose went 6-of-15 from the field, scored 17 points, dished two assists and turned it over four times. The Bulls lost in Indiana by 17.

Saturday night, he had the aforementioned 20 points, shot well, tallied four assists and committed no turnovers. The Bulls won by 16.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors that go into a 48-minute basketball game, but you can't ignore the difference a productive Rose makes. Neither can the Pacers.

What might be most frightening for Indiana is that Rose isn't all the way back. He's nursing a right hamstring injury, and while his numbers Saturday night were the best of his 2013-14 season, they were still below his career averages of nearly 21 points and seven assists.

Assuming Rose can return to his pre-injury form, the Pacers have a problem on their hands. At four of five positions, the matchups between these two teams are close, or at least competitive.

Lance Stephenson and Jimmy Butler are both young, athletic 2's who offer a lot defensively. That one's probably a wash, but I'm sure there are a lot of Bulls fans who would go Butler in a landslide.

At the other wing is the matchup between Luol Deng and Paul George. Deng outplayed George in this game, but the latter is an MVP candidate. He's a lockdown defender who on Saturday night failed to reach 20 points for the first time this season. George is one of the most complete players in the game, and despite the tough loss, I'm as confident in him as he is in his team:

The frontcourt battle is close too. Almost alone, Carlos Boozer's 17 points a game makes the Bulls' power forward-center combo a bit more productive offensively, but the defense of David West and Roy Hibbert is phenomenal. 

Hibbert is averaging a league-leading 4.6 blocks per game. West adds 1.5. When they're on the floor together, they give up just 88.5 points per 100 possessions. To me, their dominance defensively gives Indiana the edge.

That leaves the point guard matchup, where a full-strength Rose is something for which Indiana simply does not have an answer.

That was evident Saturday night. Indiana's George Hill is a solid player, so this shouldn't be read as an indictment against him. Rose is a player that almost no one can slow down.

If (and it is still an "if" at this point) he returns to MVP form, Rose is the X-factor that could well determine which team emerges as this season's Central Division champion.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted and are current as of November 16, 2013.

For 140-character pearls of wisdom from Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey, follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDBailey.

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