The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls entered 2013-14 as championship contenders. At various points during the autumn and winter they were the darlings of the NBA. Both teams began the postseason with aspirations to knock off the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. They boast the two best defenses in the NBA, and they’re working against two limited teams in Atlanta and Washington that few gave a nod to as first-round victors.
On Tuesday, both Indiana and Chicago will be fighting to save their seasons. Even in a best-of-seven series, it’s astonishing what one misspent game will cost you.
Atlanta demolished Indiana in Game 1, while Washington took out the X-acto knife to take apart Chicago. Both lower-seeded teams took each contest on the road, and neither victory came off as a fluke. This is why many see Tuesday night’s Game 2s as coin flips of sorts, with Atlanta having decided matchup advantages against Indiana, and Washington somehow aping Chicago’s defensive intensity and inside-out scoring routine. Should the coin land on the road team’s side again in Game 2, Chicago and Indiana – one-time championship contenders – will be facing 0-2 deficits with three out of the next potential five games to be played on the road.
That’s about as swift as things sometimes come in this league, in many ways (both fair and unfair) similar to the way the NCAA’s March Madness works. The Eastern Conference was once thought of as a top-heavy mess, but apparently Western-styled parity has crept over to the Midwest as well. Nobody should ever confuse a Hawks-Pacers game with a Mavericks-Spurs series or a Chicago-Washington pairing with a Rockets-Trail Blazers duel, but the proof is in the 0-1’ing.
Chicago hasn’t been a championship contender since Derrick Rose tore his meniscus in November, but still managed a 39-18 end to its season, relying on stout defense and crisp ball movement along the way. Washington expertly matched both of those stylistic ends on Sunday evening, though, while mostly denying Chicago the ability to run the offense through Joakim Noah, and taking away Noah’s passing lanes even when he was allowed a high-elbow look. The Wizards pummeled Chicago inside and took advantage of the Bulls’ obsession with guarding the corner 3-pointer, always making the extra pass along the way.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had plenty to chew on while watching tape of his team’s Game 1 loss, but he always has something to chew on. That’s not the point. The point, as always, is whether or not Chicago has the horses to compete with a talented-yet-inconsistent group of Washington Wizards. The Wizards, unlike these Bulls, may take nights off as they dot through the regular season, but they’re also 3-1 against Chicago this season, including Game 1. They match up well, and they have the athleticism and skill to topple the Bulls even at Chicago’s most mindful. Even with John Wall and Bradley Beal combining to shoot 7 for 25, as was the case on Sunday.
Matchups are also a grave concern to Indiana, which had to watch as formerly all-world center Roy Hibbert looked like a man out of time on Saturday. Hibbert did well to defend Paul Millsap in the first half, and he scored on a couple of pointed good looks during garbage time in Game 1, but by and large his performance had many wondering if Indiana should sit its two-time All-Star center. Toss in the Pacers’ inability to house Indianapolis native Jeff Teague and solid work off the pine from Elton Brand, and you have a 101-93 Hawks win with a score that doesn’t represent how one-sided the game truly was.
There has long been concern that both teams have been punching above their own weight. Since Thibodeau took over in 2010, the Bulls have made an art out of squeezing every drop out of the regular season, standing up to all challenges and rarely falling victim to the various pratfalls that an 82- or 66-game season reveals. The Pacers were notoriously wishy-washy about their 2013-14 regular season turn, pairing a 46-13 start with a 10-13 finish to things, so they can’t claim to perform as well as Chicago does in that term – but as the Bulls have done twice in LeBron James’ time in Miami, Indiana did manage to keep the Heat from earning the East’s top seed.
With the postseason comes a respite from a new-team-every-night schedule, which is beneficial to teams both great and mediocre. The Hawks and Wizards are truly mediocre, but mediocre doesn’t mean “bad,” and mediocre paired with good planning and crisp execution can lead to at least a competitive series and at worst an upset win over a favored, supposedly superior basketball club.
The Bulls and Pacers will have a life after Game 2, win or lose. They’ll also have to execute their way toward making that a better life, and making a distinction between that “competitive series, or upset?” outcome. We’re not even a week away from May for two teams that wanted to play until June, and already things are on the line.
A frightening situation for two teams that expected so much more from themselves last October.
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