The Chicago Bulls & Indiana Pacers Battle In The NBA Central

The Indiana Pacers got a tough 95-90 win in Chicago last night, and pulled to within 2 ½ games of the Bulls in the NBA’s Central Division. The Pacers are a team getting some love as a darkhorse this year in the East, while Chicago joins Miami as the top-heavy favorites to be in the conference finals for the second straight year. Today, TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Bulls & Pacers. Next to each team in parentheses is their record and rank for the entire Eastern Conference, out of which eight teams make the playoffs.

Chicago (16-4, 1st): The record shows that in spite of last night’s loss the Running Of The Bulls (see video below), is coming along quite nicely. Derrick Rose hasn’t let last year’s MVP award and this year’s $95 million contract go to his head, and he’s still averaging 21 points and 8 assists per game What Rose doesn’t have is a good three-point shooter to play drive-and-dish with. Richard Hamilton is a good player at two-guard, but at 6’7” his strength lies more in the matchup problems he creates for smaller guards. Ronnie Brewer does pretty well at the three-pointers he does make, but just doesn’t launch all that many. Over the course of the long season, one has to wonder if we’ll see defenses pull back more and more, and if Brewer might have to be that unsung hero who steps up in a big game and hits 4-5 treys.

Chicago isn’t big, at least by NBA standards, up front, but they’re physical and go to the glass. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah each rebound, and Boozer is an effective scorer on the blocks. Where the Bulls are really hurt, at least in the short-term is the wrist injury to Luol Deng. A 16 points/8 rebounds a night player, Deng had been playing his best basketball of the young season until a wrist injury forced him to the sideline. On the one hand, he’s listed as day-to-day. On the other hand, he’s also listed as being out indefinitely.

Without Deng, Chicago won’t win its first post-Jordan NBA title, but if he is healthy I think they will. The reason is defense and rebounding. Chicago ranks first in the NBA defensive efficiency and third in rebounding. They do need to spice it up offensively a bit, where their efficiency ranking is 12th (Efficiency is a formula that adjusts points scored for tempo. Don’t ask me how it’s calculated, I just know what it factors and I look it up). A midseason trade for someone who can provide some instant offense—think someone along the lines of Steve Kerry on their late 1990s championship run, who could hit the three-ball– wouldn’t hurt as the Bulls try to fill in the last missing pieces of a championship team.

Indiana (12-5, 5th): The efficiency rankings suggest that Indiana’s not as good as its record right now, as the Pacers rank 22nd on offense and 12th on defense. Their rebounding is also in the middle of the league. Making all that add up to a contender in the East is tough—in fact, it’s impossible to go the entire year without those numbers reconciling themselves, so let’s look at the personnel and see if it can be the efficiency ranking that goes up, rather than the winning percentage going down.

Indian’s team functions around 7’2” center Roy Hibbert, who delivers a 15/10 each night and is a disruptive defensive presence. In the backcourt they key is point guard Darren Collision, who’s a pretty good quarterback and respectable enough shooter than you can’t play off him entirely. The pieces around these two are filled in nicely. Hibbert gets rebounding help from veteran David West and third-year power forward Tyler Hansbrough. Both also score in double-digits. At the guards, 21-year old Paul George s not only a matchup problem, being 6’8” and having a willingness to hit the glass, but he’s a steady shooter and hits 46 percent from behind the arc. George Hill is a similarly effective shooter.

The X-factor for the Pacers is small forward Danny Grander. At 17 ppg, he’s the team’s leading scorer, but he also only hits 37 percent of his shots from the floor, a stat that suggests he bears some responsibility for the bad efficiency numbers. Granger needs to stabilize his game if Indiana is going to reach the next level.

With all the contenders beyond Chicago and Miami in the East, we’re basically asking two questions—the first is, can they win playoff series and get to the second round. After that, can they compete with either of the Big Two. I like what Indiana has going here. I wouldn’t move to the level of Chicago or Miami, in spite of last night’s impressive win, nor would I even say they’re as good as Philadelphia. But right now I would slot them 4th in the East if I was doing power ratings, enabling them to clear at least the first threshold we set for darkhorses in the East.

Both Central Division contenders have tests coming up. Indiana goes to Boston and Orlando in a span of three days starting tomorrow, and on Sunday afternoon it’s Bulls-Heat (3:30 PM ET) on ABC.