The scouting report is complete. Since Jan. 4, the Bulls have battled all seven Eastern Conference playoff contenders on the road.
Despite playing without Derrick Rose and missing starters in several other contests, the Bulls went 5-2, losing to Brooklyn (without Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer) and Indiana on Monday (without Hinrich or Noah).
As of Tuesday morning, New York was second in the East, just a half-game behind Miami. The feeling here, though, is Indiana will be the strongest playoff opponent among teams that don’t have LeBron James.
Sure, the Bulls trailed the Pacers by 4 points with less than two minutes remaining on Monday. So it’s easy think if they add Rose and Noah, it would be no problem.
But since Frank Vogel took over has head coach, Indiana has been one of the league’s most physical, defensive teams. What the Pacers lacked was a go-to scorer in close games.
Now they have one. It will probably take some trial and error before rising star Paul George is able to drop enough clutch baskets to multiple playoff series. But the 6-foot-8 George has become sort of a mini, Indy version of Kevin Durant.
George isn’t as deadly offensively, but he’s tall enough to get good looks against tight coverage and also plays more defense than Durant.
The Bulls should feel confident they’ll be a much better team when Rose returns from ACL surgery in a few weeks. The great unknown for the Pacers is what happens when Danny Granger returns from a knee injury, expected to happen after the all-star break.
Granger is used to being Indiana’s top scorer. If he’s comfortable ceding his scoring role to George, while focusing more on defense and rebounds, the Pacers should have no problems. If Granger expects the team hierarchy to return to 2010 form, they’ll have problems.
Indiana already has three quality scorers in George, power forward David West and point guard George Hill. In theory, Granger could give the Pacers an elite spot-up shooter to compliment the big guys inside.
This scenario may even be intriguing enough to coax Indiana basketball fans to turn off the Hoosiers and start attending Pacers games again.
The Bulls will be back at the Berto Center on Wednesday before completing their six-game road trip with a quick journey to Denver and Utah. Here’s a quick rundown of the other Eastern Conference playoff contenders:
8. Boston: Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics should be more concerned with holding off Philadelphia for the final playoff spot than winning a series.
7. Milwaukee: The Bucks, behind coach Jim Boylan, should have enough to stay in the playoff chase, but it’s tough to see them as much of a postseason threat.
6. Atlanta: After a fast start, the Hawks seem to have lost interest. Losing sixth man Lou Williams to a torn ACL didn’t help, but Atlanta might need a more extensive overhaul.
5. Brooklyn: On paper, the Nets have a quality player at every position. Putting it all together is going to take some work. So far, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson haven’t seemed to mesh well in the backcourt.
4. Bulls: It won’t be long now until Rose comes back, we think.
3. Indiana: Pacers have won 14 straight at home, which could give winning the Central Division title some importance.
2. New York: The Knicks have looked good blowing out bad teams lately. Those 3 lopsided losses to the Bulls are troubling, though. The Bulls made it look as though shutting down the 3-point shooters and attacking the overrated interior defense is all it takes to beat New York.
1. Miami: James alone makes Miami the team to beat. The Heat could very well be vulnerable to getting beat up on the boards while playing a small lineup. Like last year, playoff success could hinge the role players knocking down 3-point shots.
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