After a needlessly overwrought season that seemed to start all the way back in July with LeBron James' "Decision," the playoffs are finally here. After months of waiting, we're at a point where we don't have to qualify every on- or off-court decision with the caveat that reminds us that we're not yet at playoff time. No, we're at playoff time. It's the freakin' playoffs, cats and kittens, and I can hear your goosebumps popping from here. Gross.
In this episode, the Indiana Pacers take on the Chicago Bulls.
Save for any feature that includes the hallowed-out shell that is the New Orleans Hornets, this is the only first-round series where the yearly "I pick the _____ in two games" joke works. Chicago finished the season with the NBA's best record, and the Pacers are one of the worst playoff teams in NBA history, and this series is expected by many to resolve itself rather quickly.
Indiana has had its moments this season, and as someone who lives in the Hoosier State (though not exactly supporting the team), I'm glad to see the Pacers playing meaningful games deep into the Indiana spring. But Chicago has had the best record in the NBA since December, tearing along at a 53-12 pace with a league-best defense working alongside an ever-improving offense.
The hope is that Indiana can compete with Chicago, and that's a fair expectation. The team's spacing, provided the Pacers hit shots, can work its way toward acting as the sort of Achilles' heel that has bothered Chicago all season. Though the Bulls are tops in the NBA at 3-point shooting defense, spaced-out teams with a Euro-styled drive-and-kick attack can get to Chicago, and the Pacers (leaning on Reggie Miller's influence) sure can kick.
Indiana is also the only team in Chicago's division to take down the Bulls this season, a remarkable accomplishment for both sides, even considering the miserable ways in which the Central Division worked this year. At their best, the Pacers have bangers, shooters, the ability to leak in transition, and streaky guys who can get hot at the wrong time.
Chicago hasn't had a wrong time since December, though. And even if the record starts at 0-0 after an 82-game slogfest, Chicago is still playing fantastic basketball as it enters the postseason. Nerves and the weight of expectations can get to Chicago after a while, but against a limited team like the Pacers? It won't matter. Indiana will be relying on pinpoint shooting to dodge these Bulls. Chicago will be relying on defense, which is a lot easier to execute than nailing 25-footers with Luol Deng's hand in your face.
My pick? Chicago in four.
Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" It's that time of year again, sports fans! This postseason, who will survive and thrive? Who will spit the bit? And who's going to come up with a third thing that rhymes?
Here to give you their made-up takes on the key X-factors, O-multiples and Zeeman effects of Bulls/Pacers are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Mark Eaton: All right, Ol' Buddy Ol' Pal, let's take a closer look at this first-round matchup between Chicago and Indiana. I'll tell you what: Nobody seems to be giving the Pacers a real chance to win this series. How can they pull the upset?
Ol' Man Howard: First step, to my mind? Up Solomon Jones' playing time by a score-and-eight. Upright name. Work-the-earth-type name. Good, strong name like that? Oughtter be playing 40 minutes a night.
ME: That would definitely be a surprising tactical move. Jones has never played more than 34 minutes in a game in his five years in the NBA, and has appeared in just three games since Frank Vogel took the reins in Indiana back in February.
OMH: Only book that counts says, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Your book don't count for squat. Your book'll burn, Leviathan. Best believe your book'll burn.
ME: Ha-HA! Oh, Olie, you irascible so-and-so! Borderline lunatic takes and obtuse angles about reserve big men, justified using selections from Psalm 118! That is what basketball analysis is all about! For my money, the matchup to watch in this series will be at the four-spot, between a pair of guys who really know how to GO FOR IT: Carlos Boozer and Tyler Hansbrough.
OMH: Nope. Gonna be terrible.
ME: Oh, I can see it now. Carlos' near-constant yelling to show everyone how hard he's working, pitted against Tyler's hustlefaces, which pack enough determination to level an adobe hut. That's a head-to-head made in heaven for a guy like me, who's staked much of his life on the belief that the most important part of "motorvation" is the "motor."
OMH: That's not the word. Heck, it ain't even a word.
ME: But it is a world. Of possibilities.
ME: Also, Omer Asik's play is so beautiful that it makes me cry. Bulls in four.
OMH: The Creator, in His infinite wisdom, made me without tear ducts. Bulls in four.
(Editor's note: Dan also picks the Bulls in four.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
Derrick Rose: Rose is almost certain to be the NBA MVP this season, and he'll be deserving. Yet, despite the fact that he's vaulted himself into a small group of the best players in the league, he won't solidify a spot alongside LeBron, Kobe and others unless he takes the Bulls far into the playoffs. Beating the Pacers shouldn't be much of a problem. But if Rose doesn't perform like an MVP, even against an overmatched squad, we may begin to see a greater backlash against his MVP credentials among the general public.
Tom Thibodeau: The Bulls' defensive improvement this season has been drastic, and Thibs deserves most of the credit for it. In the playoffs, though, tactical and strategic acumen is often just as important as holding a psychological edge. Thibodeau is obsessive genius when it comes to putting his players in the right spots, but does he have the ability to keep his team from playing too tight in their first postseason as favorites? If he does, he'll take the nearly unprecedented step of being widely seen as one of the league's best head coaches in only his first season at the helm.
Danny Granger: Granger has been an All-Star, but few NBA observers are convinced that he's a legitimate first option for a perennial playoff participant. This is a relatively smart opinion, mostly because the Pacers haven't looked like a playoff team for all but a few months. Indiana's not going to win this series, and they might not win a single game. But this series is nevertheless the start of Granger's postseason career, and if he looks good, he may make a greater name for himself beyond fantasy leagues.
Roy Hibbert: Early in this season, Hibbert looked like a top candidate for Most Improved Player. He then hit a dry spell to fall out of the running. In 2011, Hibbert has been a far improved player. Again, no one expects the Pacers to give the Bulls a serious challenge in this series. But if Hibbert can play reasonably well against the vaunted Chicago defense, he may find himself mentioned again among the most promising young big men in the league.
My pick? Bulls in four.