- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- When the Bulls face off against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night in South Bend, Ind., they'll be filling a role they haven't had to play in about two years -- that of an underdog.
After dominating the Central Division the last two seasons to the tune of 112 regular season wins, the Bulls now face the reality that without Derrick Rose they don't have as much talent, at least on paper, to match up with the Pacers. It's a role that some players are embracing.
"We love it," Bulls guard Richard Hamilton said of the lowered expectations. "Because you love to be the underdog. You love to do stuff when people don't expect you to do anything. It makes you strive and makes you go out and want it even more."
While the players might appreciate the value of flying under the radar, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau isn't buying into the fact that expectations around his team will change, with or without Rose.
"It really doesn't mean anything," Thibodeau said after Thursday's practice. "To me, it doesn't matter what other people think. The only thing that matters is what we think. So whether you're being praised, criticized, that doesn't mean anything. It's what we think. And all I want them to concentrate on is exactly what's in front of them, improve every day, do the right things, concentrate, know your job, do your job, know when to shoot, know when to pass, stay disciplined. We do those things, we'll have a chance."
Thibodeau doesn't believe he should have to feed into his players' egos and motivate them by talking about critics. The veteran coach simply believes in hard work, and that's the motto he wants his players to hold onto.
"If you have the right type of guys, they're going to be doing the right things every day," Thibodeau said. "If you're relying on that type of stuff, I don't know how far that gets you. I'd rather have a team that's committed to doing the work, preparing the right way, doing the right things and just concentrate on that. That's how you have success."
His players are trying to buy into that message as well. Some, like Hamilton, are surely fueled by the perception around the team, but others are taking a larger picture approach to the season.
"I've said it before, individually I've never been credited anything," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "I've never went into a season saying 'He's an All-Star from the start or he's going to have this year or he's going to have that year.' That's how we've been as a team. Every year, even if Derrick was here, (critics) would be saying that we don't have enough scoring, there would be something. Every year there is something. It got to a point where it really don't matter.
"I think even Indiana, if you talked to them about being told they're going to win the division, it's still not handed to you. You show up the first day and you've still got to win ballgames. It's a long year, things happen. We got Derrick out now, but before you know it as the year goes on, (his) rehab goes well and everything, now we have Derrick back, now we're the team everyone is talking about. It's a long year and a lot of things can happen so we're not listening to any of that."
Even the veteran forward admits that some of his teammates will enjoy having the extra chip on their shoulder this year, though.
"As a competitor, you've got to take what you hear and find a way to motivate you, not fall into it," Deng said. "If I was told I was the greatest player, which a lot of people say by the way. Once you get comfortable with what's being said then you're not a great competitor. I think whether it's good or bad you always find a way to not let it get to you and just keep doing what you do."
That's what Thibodeau wants his players to focus on Friday night. However, he is the first one to admit that the Pacers are a team the Bulls are going to have to deal with all season because of the talent up and down the roster.
"They're tough," Thibodeau said. "They're tough. There's not much they don't have. They have great size, they have quickness, they have shooting, they're off the dribble. They're well coached, they play defense, and they're experienced. (Roy) Hibbert was an All-Star last year, (David) West has been an All-Star, (Danny) Granger is an All-Star, Paul George is an emerging star, George Hill is an emerging star, (D.J.) Augustin has been a very good player in the league for a long time ... they're good. (Tyler) Hansbrough brings a lot of energy and toughness. It will be a good test for us."