Indiana has one game left in the regular season. Tonight they play Orlando. And while that game could have some influence on the franchise’s collective psyche as it heads into the postseason for the first time since 2006, it really doesn’t matter it is essentially a glorified exhibition.
So we’re going to start analyzing the Pacers upcoming series against the first-place Bulls.
The teams will kick off their first-round series on Saturday evening in Chicago. The 1st-seeded Bulls (61-20) are of course heavy favorites over the 8th-seeded Pacers (37-44). We will be breaking down the match-up in much more depth in the hours and days to come — with most of the analysis pointing to all the reasons that Indiana has no chance to win — but let’s kick things off on a positive vibe with a few reasons that the Pacers actually could perhaps pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
Roy Hibbert is hungry to play his first NBA playoff game.
#1. These Bulls Haven’t Won Anything That Matters
Let’s start with this fact: the Bulls haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. And the only current holdover from that Chicago team is Luol Deng. We constantly talk about the Pacers five-year drought from even appearing in the playoffs. That is of course a much worse thing for a team to have going for it than simply not winning multiple series. On the scale of playoff experience, getting there and losing naturally trumps not getting there at all. But a lack of recent success coupled with the lofty expectations of a hungry, basketball-crazed, first-hand-MJ-familiar fanbase that likely won’t be happy until they see their team in the NBA Finals can put a lot of pressure on a team.
How will Derrick Rose and Co. respond if things get rocky?
Remember in the 2001 Finals when the Allen Iverson-led 76ers went into the Staples Center and beat the Lakers on their home floor in Game 1? Shaq scored 44 points on 28 shots and grabbed 20 rebounds and that still wasn’t enough to out-match AI and his 48-point outburst. The world was aflutter with upset talk. The Lakers were 11-0 in the playoffs prior to that Game 1 Finals loss and had steamrolled every Western Conference team they faced. But maybe, just maybe, onlookers started to think, this upstart, blue-collar Philly team had some special elixir. Maybe reigning MVP Allen Iverson could be the David to Diesel’s Goliath. Of course, the Lakers had two of the best players of all time on their team and just laughed that nonsense off, using their vastly superior talent to win the next four games and make everyone forget that for a moment, even if just a moment, there was some external doubt that put some additional pressure on the favorites.
Now, I have a lot of respect for the 2010-11 Bulls team. But they don’t have a best-he-has-ever-played Shaq or a whoa-this-kid-aint-a-kid-no-more Kobe to lean on. And with all due respect to Tom Tom Thibodeau, they also don’t have an I-couldn’t-fit-all-my-rings-on-one-hand-even-in-2001 Phil Jackson.
Sure Boozer has played in dozens of playoff games out West and Joakim Noah has all the NCAA experience in the world and 3rd-year-uber-guard Rose has never missed the postseason. But as a complete unit, they have no playoff experience.
Now, if Chicago faces some unexpected turmoil early on, I fully expect them to pull out of a nosedive. But I can’t be certain they will until I see them do it simply because this team has never been here before.
All this is due in part to the fact that …
#2. The Bulls Have Yet to Shake the Post-MJ Curse
If we follow the Chicago Bulls franchise breadcrumbs back even further, that 2007 first round sweep over the Heat is the only series the Bulls franchise has won since Michael Jordan crossed up Bryon Russell and hit that jumper for the ages. That was in the year 1998, if you don’t remember. Before we were worried about Y2K or those of us not employed by the CIA had heard of Al Qaeda. Derrick Rose was 9-years-old. Joakim Noah hadn’t even bought his first bow-tie yet. At the time, now-8-year NBA veteran Carlos Boozer still lived in Alaska, presumably to a simpleton like myself, honing his post moves in an igloo.
Past franchise futility does not determine future outcomes, but, man, that was a long time ago.
That said, something more based on recent history that could be trouble is that …
#3. These Bulls Players Are Still Learning to Play Together
One of the reasons DRose is about to win an MVP is because he was able to guide this team to the best record in the conference despite significant injuries to both Boozer and Noah. And while that is a fantastic feat and I would be the first to start a slow clap in the kid’s honor, it also means that they haven’t had the same amount of reps together as a unit that most teams that have received this much fanfare have. In late-game scenarios, they may have to rely on the individual brilliance of Rose to get points rather than being able to go to any tried-and-true, multi-player attack with counters that are well practiced in game situations. He’s Derrick “Fast Don’t Lie” Rose so I fully expect him to deliver when the guns are drawn. But what if he doesn’t one time late in Game 1? And then what if something fluky submarines another key possession in Game 3?
Stuff like that can get in your head. And as Boggle taught me long, long ago, head games are weird things. Who knows what happens after that?
Just so you know, I don’t expect any of this to happen. All I’m saying is that the very thing that almost-certainly won Rose the hardware (his ability to keep the team winning even without its key players being healthy) means that there is a question mark when it comes to the cohesion and late-game, playoff-level execution that can only be answered when the playoff spotlight shines the brightest.
And things get even more complicated under that playoff spotlight because …
#4. Chicago Has a Rookie Coach
A fourth factor is something on the sidelines. Tom Thibodeau, a guy who in my opinion is a coin flip for Coach of the Year with Gregg Popovich, also has never been the head coach of a playoff team. Or any NBA team prior to last October even. I have incredibly little doubt that he won’t perform absolutely admirably, but a lot of people have faltered in their first try at something.
And the Bulls are not an offensive juggernaut so it stands to reason that even if Chicago remains in control of the series throughout that there will be some close games decided in the final few minutes. Perhaps a rookie coach makes a mistake or two that swings an early game in the series and puts additionally pressure on a club whose main three pieces haven’t played that many minutes together.
Stranger things have happened.
One of them came very recently in fact when …
#5. Indiana Had Some Recent Success vs. Chicago
Lastly, as this reaching-for-straws-competition I’m having with myself concludes, let’s remember that the Pacers have had some success against the Bulls this year — very recently in fact.
Below are the vital stats from their the last time they meet just a month ago.
Pacers 115, Bulls 108 (OT)
Conseco Fieldhouse | Indianapolis | March 18
On top are the vitals from the team box score.
Simple math shows that the Pacers did not only hang with Chicago well enough to finally beat them. For three quarters, Indiana flat out kicked their ass. They were up by 10 after the first, by 14 at the half and 16 after three. You astute mathematicians will also notice that the Bulls indeed walloped the blue and gold throughout the fourth, outscoring them by 16 and, as is accustomed to happening when a team down 16 entering the fourth outscores the other team by 16 in the final frame, forcing overtime.
The Pacers didn’t wilt and die, however — and that’s important.
They put up a healthy 13 points in the five minutes of free basketball and won by 7. The graphic below the box score shows the game flow. (The middle line represents a point-differential of 0. When the line is below that, which it is essentially the whole game, it means Indy was winning by a margin proportional to the distance the zig-zaggy line is away from the center.) As you can see, Indy was gangbusters out of the starting blocks. They really never trailed and took total control 6 minutes in.
I know, I know … it’s one regular season game and Chicago was on the second night of a road/road back-to-back. (They played in New Jersey the night before.) Boozer didn’t play. And you can never read that much into how teams played head-to-head throughout the regular season — let alone in one game — when trying to determine what will happen in the playoffs. But this wasn’t that long ago, and the Pacers legitimately out-played the Eastern Conference’s number one seed — on a night that the soon-to-be NBA MVP scored 42 points on 27 shots while getting to the line a Dwyane Wadean 21 times.
Historical precedent says that having success against a team in the regular season may not mean much. But for the confidence of the guys in the Indiana locker room, it might mean a lot.
We will see starting Saturday.
(For the record, I’m fully aware that Chicago went 3-1 against Indiana this year, winning the first three meetings 92-73, 99-86 and 110-89. I get it. But first of all, those three games came before Jim O’Brien was fired. And second of all, we’ll get to all the many, many, many, many reasons that the Pacers have no chance in the series soon enough. But this is a positive post. Leave me alone.)