Central Division rivals meet in the Windy City on Saturday afternoon to begin the 2011 NBA Playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers have gotten to know each other quite well over the years. Not only do they play each other four times every year in the regular season, but they have also met many times in the postseason. This year, they will renew their rivalry with a first-round playoff match up which features Derrick Rose and his strong supporting cast against a young, inexperienced Pacers team that is trying to make some noise.
This first-round series will begin when the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers make the short trip up to Chicago to take on the Bulls, who are the No. 1 seed in the East. Chicago won three of the four games between these two this season, and none of them were really close. The only win the Pacers got over the Bulls was late in the season in Indianapolis, when Chicago was without Carlos Boozer.
There are eight first-round series to begin the playoffs, and none looks more one-sided than this one. Most everyone is calling for a sweep here, and for good reason. Breaking down this series by positions, coaching, and other factors, it is easy to see why the broom will probably be used in this one.
Obviously, the clear winner here is the leading MVP candidate Derrick Rose. His explosiveness and ability to finish at the rim is what most teams fear most. While Darren Collison is quicker than most guards, Rose is still too big for him to handle in the lane.
Since his rookie year, Rose has really began working on his game and his weaknesses. When he came out of Memphis, the best way to guard him was to play off him and make him beat you with his jump shot, or lack there of. Now Rose is a solid shooter, and even a really good shooter from three-point range. There really is no way to stop him when he has the ball, as he is also averaging 7.7 assists per game this year.
This is perhaps the biggest hole on each team's roster. Having a great shooting guard would vastly improve both of these teams, and the Bulls could possibly have the best starting five in the league. If they Bulls had somehow landed Dwyane Wade (another Chicago kid) this past offseason, they could easily have the best backcourt in the game today. With the Bulls turning to Keith Bogans, the advantage here might actually go to Indiana, depending on who they elect to start.
Of the three options (George, Dunleavy, Rush) I think the most logical choice would be Dunleavy, because of how well he has been playing since coming back from his broken thumb. His offense has been great, and his lack of one-on-one defense shouldn't hurt him considering Bogans isn't a huge offensive threat. Paul George seems to play better as the sixth man, and Brandon Rush is too inconsistent to consider starting. If the Pacers go with Dunleavy at this position, give the slight edge to Indiana here.
This is going to be a very interesting battle to watch. Luol Deng has been having one of the best years of his career, while Danny Granger is statistically having the worst of his. Both players are very talented on offense, but Deng is the better defensive player of the two. He is a little longer and quicker than Danny, which could give him a slight edge in this match up.
Granger will be responsible for most of the offensive load for the Pacers, so Deng will probably focus more on his defense in this matchup. Deng has the ability to score anywhere on the floor, and if he is able to shut down Granger on defense, it could be the nail in the coffin for this series.
This is also going to be another interesting position battle to watch, because these two are so different. Carlos Boozer is one of the most underrated players in the league, in my opinion. His presence really brings this team together and makes them stronger. He is obviously as solid as they come on offense, but his defense has picked up this year as well. If the Pacers elect to stick Hansbrough on him, he will be undersized and Tyler will likely get into foul trouble.
Josh McRoberts is probably a better defender against Boozer, but the problem is he won't give you much on offense, which really hurts against a good defensive team like the Bulls. Whether they decide to go with Hansbrough or McRoberts, Boozer shouldn't have any problems with either of them.
Another matchup of big men that are very different from one another. With Joakim Noah, the Bulls have one of the best rebounders in the league, and a shot-blocking presence in the lane.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have a 7-foot big man who has been very inconsistent this season. Hibbert had a strong start to the season, then faded fast before finally showing signs of life again late in the season. It's been hard to pinpoint exactly where things have been going wrong for him, although it appears that he often settles for mid-range jump shots.
His matchup looks good against Noah, but if the Bulls bring in Omer Asikto play a lot of minutes, he could really have his way with Hibbert. He is much quicker and can guard Hibbert in the post as well. If that is the case, the Pacers will probably bring in Foster, which still gives the Bulls the edge here.
The Bulls have a coach in Tom Thibodeau that has led his team to a No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and is on the verge of winning the Coach of the Year Award.
The Pacers are running with an interim head coach after Jim O'Brien was let go halfway into the season. Vogel has done some great things, and actually has a winning record as the head coach of this team, but the organization still isn't sure if they are going to bring him back next season.
Thibodeau has been an exceptional coach this season, taking his team to the top, so don't expect Vogel to out-coach him in any of these games.
Both of these teams have some depth on their roster, which is always a good thing. There will be a lot of players getting involved in this series, especially if the game is decided early. Indiana will probably go with Paul George as the sixth man, with McRoberts, Foster, Rush and Price getting a lot of minutes as well. Dahntay Jones could find his way into the game for a few minutes to give some guys some rest.
The Bulls will come with deadly shooter Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik, as well as CJ Watson and Ronnie Brewer. All of these guys know their roles, and they play them well. I don't see the bench being as one-sided as you might imagine, but the Bulls still have a little more talent here. Their bench is a big reason why they have the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
This series is as one-sided on paper as it probably will be on the floor, but I am confident the Pacers can avoid a sweep. It won't be easy though, as they were a horrible road team once again this year. They will start in Chicago, and will come home trailing in the series, where they will host their first playoff game since 2006.
You would think that would give them a lot of fan support here in the city, re-energizing them. Unfortunately, Chicago is just up the road, and the bandwagon Derrick Rose fans will surely be in attendance, chanting "MVP" every time he goes to the free throw line and makes another sensational lay up.
This may be a watered-down version of Michael's Bulls against Reggie's Pacers, as the No. 1 vs No. 8 seed almost always stays to the course (unless Dallas is involved). The Bulls don't have MJ, but the young kid from Chicago is filling the void those fans have had ever since he left the game.
For Indiana, they must not let the moment overwhelm them, and play with confidence. They are a young team that is just trying to get experience and build on the future.
They need to stay tough, though. They don't want this experience to turn into one they would like to forget. It won't be easy; Reggie Miller is not walking through that door. Granger is nothing even comparable to Reggie either, so they need to learn how to play as a team, and everyone must play their role. If they can do that, there is no reason they can't grab at least one game in this series.
Prediction: Bulls in Five
Game 1 in Chicago: Saturday at 1 pm
Game 2 in Chicago: Monday at 8:30 pm
Game 3 in Indianapolis: Thursday 4/21
Game 4 in Indianapolis: Saturday 4/23