Eastern Conference first-round preview: Bulls vs. Pacers

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While other high seeds have staggered over the past month -- the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Mavericks and Heat -- the Bulls have never stopped surging. They have won nine games in a row and 21 of 23 with the presumptive MVP (Derrick Rose) and potential coach of the year (Tom Thibodeau). After scraping into the playoffs the past two seasons as the No. 8 seed, they have become the most consistent and diligent team in the NBA. The Pacers aspire to be what the Bulls (62-20) once were: an underdog throwing a scare. Interim coach Frank Vogel has steered the Pacers to the playoffs for the first time in five years, dialing up the tempo and resuscitating former North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough, but the Pacers (37-45) still have a losing record and no margin for error.


Darren Collison vs. Derrick Rose. Three years ago, UCLA met Memphis in the NCAA Final Four, and the Bruins had to decide whether to put Collison or Russell Westbrook on Rose. They went with Collison and Rose torched him, finishing with 25 points, nine rebounds and an easy win. It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a college game, but the fact remains that Rose is 30 pounds heavier than Collison and enjoys a decisive physical advantage over him, averaging 27 points and 6.5 assists against the Pacers this season, and scoring 42 in their latest meeting. The Pacers will need much more than Collison to slow him.


Bulls: Joakim Noah. The only trouble with playing starters through the end of the season is the risk of injury, and to illustrate the point, Noah aggravated his sprained right ankle Tuesday in New York. He will be fine to start the series, but the Bulls will need him as close to full strength as possible against Indiana center Roy Hibbert, who leads the Pacers in rebounding and could present a tricky matchup.

Pacers: Danny Granger. The last time the Pacers made the playoffs, Granger was a rookie. He became one of the league's most potent scorers, but rarely did his points matter. Granger finally has a turn on the playoff stage against the team he wanted to play, stating several times that he preferred to draw the Bulls rather than the Celtics. He will need a transcendent series for the Pacers to compete.


If the Pacers can turn up the tempo, they might be able to steal a game. But the Bulls are too precise in the half-court, too stingy on defense and too relentless in the fourth quarter to let the Pacers challenge them the way they challenged the Celtics two years ago. At some point, the Bulls may trip, but if this season is any indication, they will quickly regain their balance. Bulls in 5.