The 5-0 Pacers, the NBA's lone remaining unbeaten team, notched their latest win in impressive fashion Wednesday against the Bulls. The nationally televised bout was closely contested for three and a half quarters, but then, in just a few minutes of game time, it was over. Indiana rattled off a massive run behind the scoring of its supporting cast and pulled away for a 97-80 victory. What was intended as a duel between heavyweights hardly played out as such down the stretch, as the Pacers kicked into gear precisely as the Bulls stumbled -- the story of both teams' young seasons packaged for convenience.
Chicago isn't scrambling, nor should it be. There's still a superstar lead guard, a sharp coach and a disciplined defense there, all of which should bring a successful season. Indiana is just in a different class at the moment, as evidenced by its unblemished start and commanding efficiency differential (+13.4 per 100 possessions, second only to the Warriors). All-world defense and functional offense make for a handsome pair -- handsome enough, it seems, that the Pacers are already (and justifiably) eyeing loftier goals for their season.
1. Vogel: “5-0, that’s a good start. But how we’re playing is even more encouraging. I think we have a championship-level defense. And we’ve got enough offensive pieces to put it all together on the offensive end. So it will be an exciting year.”
This is an aim that's far bigger than a mere regular-season win over the Bulls. Indiana had a championship-caliber defense last season, with room to spare. The Pacers slowed the Knicks and challenged the Heat, displaying the resilient execution and strategic tinkering necessary to beat teams on the defensive end. It was the Pacers' offense, predictably, that left them just short of the Finals, and just short of any chance to test their championship mettle.
The important thing here is that Vogel sees the offense for what it is: successful to a point (or to ho-hum 95.4 points, if you'd like to get specific), though still more a pile of components than a finished product. The bench is far more robust and George is scraping new heights with his shot creation and efficiency, though the individual elements still have yet to be arranged in a way that would make the Pacers an out-and-out juggernaut. For now, they settle for high marks in their pursuit of a "championship-level defense," along with trust that Vogel can bring things along on the other side of the floor. As far as season-long ambition goes, these aims are perfectly reasonable for the Pacers.
2. George: “We want to step away from that shadow as the ‘little brothers’ of this division. [The Bulls'] success is the Michael Jordan era. This is a new age, this is a new team. It’s ours till they take it.”
To George, a win over the Bulls clearly isn't just a win over the Bulls. This was a 17-point declaration that the burden of proof in the Central Division does not rest with the Pacers. Indiana bludgeoned its way to the Eastern Conference finals just a few months ago, and within that series it was a single win -- or perhaps a few plays -- away from knocking off the defending champion Heat. Chicago can claim no similar accomplishment in the recent past, as Derrick Rose's lengthy absence left the Bulls as plucky participants for two straight postseasons. These teams are close in physical proximity, similarly styled and will likely both vie for the conference crown. Yet they've largely been two ships passing quietly in the night, ascending through the conference in alternating intervals. Neither has really been in command for long enough to declare the dawn of a "new age," yet here we are.
The assumed conflict is interesting, in that divisional lines mean essentially nothing in NBA terms. Beyond that, these two have but a single -- albeit testy -- playoff series between them, from 2011, and even that matchup involved a far different Pacers team. Danny Granger led Indiana in minutes played that season, but more recently has logged just 74 minutes in the Pacers' last 106 regular-season and playoff games. Granger aside, five of the next six in minutes played -- Darren Collison, Brandon Rush, Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough -- are Pacers no more. David West, who has been credited from within the team for changing its culture, hadn't yet arrived, and George himself hadn't yet arrived. George Hill was still in San Antonio, Lance Stephenson in college at Cincinnati and the Pacers' supporting cast scattered across the league.
This is why Rose said he doesn't consider Indiana to be among Chicago's rivals -- specifically citing the changing roster and the departure from "when Darren Collison was on the team." These two teams are opponents. They're contenders. They're foils, even. But the Pacers and Bulls don't yet share a rivalry by any conventional sports definition, as there isn't as much familiarity between the two rosters as one might suppose.
It's just fine that George wants to make sure his team has dominion over another in the East's assumed elite, but framing the relationship between these two teams as a "COME AND TAKE IT" battle of intra-division foes strikes me as a bit of pro-wrestling-style silliness.
3. West: “We’ve talked about competing for the '1' seed from opening night. We feel like that’s a realistic goal. Obviously we understand there are some tough teams out there, some teams got better. Obviously Miami’s the defending champs. But we trust who we are. We believe in who we are. ... We’re working toward that. That’s our focus. I remember saying that after Game 7 last year, ‘It’s a totally different series if we’re on our home court.’”
This is an important reminder that the top seed in the conference has more pragmatic value than anything else. Forget the statement sent by a dominant season; home court empirically matters in the playoffs, and the Pacers are wise to consider it in a season with so many formidable teams lined up in the East. Indiana matches up so well with Miami that every minor advantage matters, and in the grand scheme of things the Pacers might not be so far removed from Chicago or Brooklyn by season's end as to ignore the value of playing at home. The Pacers need this, in the same way they need just about every break they can get. Winning a title takes an incredible amount of luck, but securing home court through a run to the East's best record is one of the few ways in which the Pacers can make their own.