It was supposed to be a cakewalk. The top-seeded Chicago Bulls were only playing the 37-45 Indiana Pacers because the league required them to before facing the winner of the Orlando Magic-Atlanta Hawks series.
Even that round was supposed to be a preliminary before the real playoffs started.
Would the hated Miami Heat be coming to Chicago, or the ancient Boston Celtics with their last-gasp hope to win another ring?
Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Pacers that.
Frank Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien after the Bulls beat them 110-89 on January 29. He changed Indiana from an afterthought to a team that has the gall to believe they can play with the club with the best record in the league.
You would think the Pacers are up on the Bulls 2-0, or at least tied 1-1 heading back to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indy from the outrage in Chicago after the first two games, but they're not.
If Indiana wasn't a team with inferior talent and the Bulls didn't have a player who puts on his uniform in a phone booth, they would be.
It comes down to expectations.
Before the season, if the Bulls won 50 games, most fans would have been thrilled.
Ending up with the best record in the NBA didn't do them any favors. Now, anything less than the NBA finals will probably be viewed as a disappointment.
That's why the Bulls were expected to treat the Pacers like the scum on the bottom of a shoe—as just an annoyance and nothing to lose sleep over.
The Pacers have nothing to lose, so they're playing loose, while the Bulls have the jitters because they know everything is on the line.
Instead of being the underdog, they're the favorites now, and it's a role they are not used to.
Matchups also come into play. Even though the Pacers aren't a very good team, they are long and cause matchup problems for the Bulls. The better opponent is not always the toughest opponent.
While fans are feeling a sense of dread, the reality is that the Bulls are playing exactly like they did during the regular season. They are playing to the competition in front of them. They played well against the good teams, but not as good against the mediocre and bad ones.
Breaking it down, they were 31-10 against teams .500 or under. They had the same record against the elite of the league.
Going a little further, if you include the New York Knicks, who finished 42-40, in the mix, they would be 30-8 against top competition and 32-12 against lesser foes. The Knicks needed a seven game winning streak near the end of the season to get above .500.
The competition gets tougher after the Pacers, which is good news for the Bulls.
Barring an upset, they should be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's especially important for Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau that it happens. Charles Barkley recently mentioned on a local sports radio station how much he likes Chicago in June.
He then issued a warning that he would "kill Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau" if the Bulls don't make it to the conference finals.
If that isn't motivation, what is?
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