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Inside the Bulls-Eye: Indiana Pacers

I had a chance to sit down with Indiana Pacers writer Tim Donahue from the ESPN True Hoops Network site Eight Points, Nine Seconds to chat about tonight’s big time showdown between the Bulls and Pacers. The Pacers are one of the rising teams in the NBA and are 3.5 games behind the Bulls in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division.

1. Before the season I said the Pacers were a team to watch out for. They have done a pretty good job of living up to the hype so far. If the playoffs started today the Pacers would be the third seed and they share the title with the Bulls of the only teams with undefeated home records. Tim why are the Pacers so good this year?

It’s a combination of a lot of things. Young Pacers like Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, and Paul George are all playing at a higher level than last year, but bringing in David West and George Hill are huge roster upgrades. West gives Indy a second player at or above Danny Granger’s level, and George Hill is as good as anybody coming off the bench in this league.

Besides the talent upgrade, both West and Hill have brought leadership and experience from winning situations. This was in scant supply last season, so when things got tough, the team fell apart. This year’s squad is much, much more stable, and it’s probably more talented than any roster the Pacer have had since perhaps opening night of the 2005-2006 season.

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2. The Pacers just over took the Bulls as the league’s best per game average rebounding team. Roy Hibbert is a bit of a monster ranking tenth in the league in average rebounds with 9.9 per game. Right now he’s outplaying Joakim Noah but is he the better player or is this a fluke? How important has Hibbert been to the Pacers success?

There’s no question that Roy Hibbert is playing very, very good basketball right now, probably better than Noah. But…I’d stop short of saying he’s the better player. They’re two very different players, so it is difficult put them side by side and make a choice.

Hibbert has been the most consistent Pacer this season, by far, and that has been instrumental in Indy’s success. The key with Hibbert will be sustainability.

Roy’s level of play over the first 15 games this season has been very high, but not much – if at all – higher than over the first 16 games last season. (2012 – 14 pts/10rebs/21+ PER, 2011 – 16 pts, 9 rebs, 21+ PER). Last year it all fell apart in spectacular fashion. That’s not expected this year, but in the NBA, you have to prove yourself night-in-and-night-out over the course of a full season and into the playoffs. Hibbert still has to do that, in my opinion.

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3. The Bulls are riddled with injuries from Derrick Rose to Luol Deng and even Taj Gibson. With the Bulls limping along, how scary are they to the Pacers? Which player is the guy Indiana needs to be mindful of?

As I was looking at the game, I realized – much to my surprise – that I haven’t watched the Bulls since the first week or two of the season. Can’t honestly say how that happened, but it is what it is.

My normal pecking order would be Rose (duh), but then the matchups of Noah on Hibbert, and Deng on Granger. Luol Deng has seemed to be particularly effective at winning the matchup over  the last few contests.

But, Deng probably won’t be there, so…for Wednesday night, I think I’m most interested in Richard Hamilton. The Pacers will want to use Paul George on Derrick Rose, leaving Darren Collison with the task of chasing Rip. If he can’t do it, Indy can go to George Hill, but the Pacer offense dies when Hill plays the point.

To really have a chance, the starting backcourt of George and Collison will have to hold their own at the defensive end, thus maintaining some semblance of stability at the offensive end.

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4. Last year Frank Vogel said the Pacers were going to beat the Bulls in the playoffs and one of the first things he said when he got to the court before the Pacers preseason game was the Pacers shouldn’t have lost to the Bulls. He obviously feels strongly about the talent of his team so do you think that should these teams meet in the playoffs again the Pacers can finally fulfill Vogel’s prophecy?

No. Barring a major trade or something ill befalling Derrick Rose, I just don’t think the Pacers can win a series against either Chicago or Miami. There’s just not enough offense or size on this roster at the moment.

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5. Let’s move away from a potential playoff rematch and focus on tonight. With the Bulls being so injured and the Pacers being a team on the rise, do you think Indiana can hand the Bulls their first home loss of this season and give the Bulls a firm punch in the mouth in the form of a loss?

I really don’t expect it, but the Pacers’ defense has kept them in every game – except for Miami, where they got run out of the gym.  Looking at Chicago’s numbers through Tuesday morning, I see Bulls strong where the Pacers are weak, and stronger where the Pacers are strong. I’m not completely ruling out a Pacer upset, but it would be exactly that – a sizable upset.

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