The improved Pacers showed that the Bulls still have room for improvement
CHICAGO -- Score one for the little guys. Well, the pretty big little guys anyway.
The Indiana Pacers, the upstart contenders from Nowheresville, didn't quite avenge their playoff defeat to the big, bad Chicago Bulls, but a 95-90 win at the United Center definitely put a little spring in their step.
Don't sleep on the guys from Naptown. They have more than enough size and an improved scoring punch since last season.
Indiana gave the Bulls their first home loss of the season, and first drew blood in a battle between the only two teams in the Central Division that can run and chew gum at the same time.
Sure, it's just the Bulls' fourth loss, but the way coach Tom Thibodeau looked after the game, you'd think Tyler Hansbrough smashed his favorite projector.
Now, no one expects Chicago (16-4) to finish second in the Central, but it's clear Indiana, now 12-5, is for real. The Pacers returned much of their team from last year, are extremely deep up front and now have two go-to scorers in David West and Danny Granger.
Also, they're pretty physical, right?
"They try to play physical," Derrick Rose said. "But I don't know."
I'm not sure if Rose was just being overanalytical with the definition of physicality, or if he was purposefully withholding praise. He sure was direct when he told some reporters he wouldn't soon forget watching Indiana celebrate a January victory on his floor.
"I can't wait to play them again," said Rose, who scored a game-high 24 points but passed up a tying shot late in the game to kick it to Brian Scalabrine in the corner for a missed 3.
Before the game, Granger told me he had nothing but praise for his rivals.
"I think the Bulls are the best team, right now, in the league, and I would put Oklahoma City right behind them," he said. "They are in our division, and the good thing about it is the more times we play them, you want to play the best teams. It makes your team better."
When I asked Joakim Noah if this game reminded him of their first-round series last year, he sniffed, "This is a regular-season game."
That can be translated into: "Try us again in April, when it matters."
The Bulls probably won't have to deal with Indiana in the first round again. Last year's five-game series win wasn't easy at all. The Pacers brought similar energy in this game, out-rebounding the Bulls 44-41 in a battle of two top rebounding teams.
Chicago was playing shorthanded, as it has been pretty much all season, but this one was against good competition. (Nothing against New Jersey, which could be one of the better teams in the Big East.) You can see how the absence of Luol Deng and Taj Gibson affected what is supposed to be one of the best defenses in the league.
"You try to drive the lane, they got three people coming," Granger said before the game. "You try to kick it out and they've got people contesting."
But with the Bulls missing two key defensive players, Indiana scored 50 points in the paint, led by Roy Hibbert, who scored 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting and added eight rebounds and four blocks. Granger scored 22 points, hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers, and added nine rebounds. West added 14 points and Hansbrough scored 10 off the bench.
Thibodeau was steaming after the game, upset at his team's laissez-faire attitude during the morning shootaround. Thibodeau even gave us one of his favorite sayings: "In this league, you get what you deserve."
While Thibodeau is already ready to rip the defense, he seemed more upset about the team's offensive failings. Rip Hamilton went 6-for-20 and C.J. Watson missed all six of his shots. Ronnie Brewer, the only player Thibodeau thought was ready to play, scored 14 of his 20 in the second quarter. Carlos Boozer went 5-for-14 for 11 points.
"I didn't think we were as aggressive as we needed to be," Thibodeau said.
Indiana came into the game with the best field goal percentage defense in the league, so that might've had something to do with it, but as Noah said, "It's not about them. It's about us."
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A little arrogant, perhaps, but probably true. Still, I wouldn't undersell Indiana.
The reasons for the Bulls' loss, which is getting dissected with extra care because of the team's early success, weren't difficult for Thibodeau to understand.
"It's pretty simple," he said. "We do the same things. It starts in practice and at shootaround. Come in, be serious and get ready. When the ball goes up, you've got to know what you're doing."
Thibodeau reads the clips every day, and I'm guessing he believes his players do, too. Though they're reading different messages. Basically, the coach thinks his players think they're too good.
Thibodeau said, "It starts with me. I've got to get them ready to play." That might sound like he's trying to absorb some of the blame, but it's really a dog-whistle reminder to his players that's he's ready to crack the whip.
"Getting ready to play is a big part of this league," Thibodeau said. "You've got to be ready to play every night. I think as soon as you start feeling good about yourself, you're going to get knocked on your ass. That's the way it is." As Noah said, this was just a regular-season game, nothing more. But it served as a valuable early-season reminder: The Bulls haven't won anything yet.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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