The Chicago Bulls fell one overtime loss short of sweeping their division this past season—something that's never been done before in the history of the league. That one loss, in which Chicago came roaring back from a huge deficit to force overtime, occurred in Indianapolis.
So what does that mean for a series in which most people expect the first-seeded Bulls to blow the eighth-seeded Pacers out of the water? It means that, if Indiana is lucky, they might win one game, probably either Game 3 or Game 4, but it isn't likely.
Despite that fact, and despite the fact that the Pacers are the only team in the entire playoffs to sneak into a first round series with a losing regular season record, Indiana's Danny Granger has already begun the proverbial talking of the trash. If, as Granger says, the Pacers can figure out a way to shut down Derrick Rose, do they have a shot in this series?
Of course they do. If they shut down Derrick Rose. The problem with that scenario, as we all know, is that nobody has been able to do that so far.
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs. Darren Collison
And who carries the most responsibility in making sure Rose doesn't kill the Pacers? None other than second-year guard Darren Collison, who had a much better second half of the season but still isn't in the same league as Rose.
Considering the fact that Rose is a legitimate MVP candidate, it would be safe to say that there aren't many point guards in the NBA who are in the same league as Rose, but Indiana has been a particularly entertaining opponent for Derrick. It was against Collison and the Pacers that Rose scored a season-high 42 points back in March, and in fact his scoring output has increased every time he's played Indiana this season. On the year, Rose is averaging 27 ppg against the Pacers.
As promising as Collison is, he's not ready for a playoff matchup with an MVP candidate who's got 3 inches and 30 pounds on him. He'll give it a valiant go, but let's be honest about this particular match-up—it's not even close.
Shooting Guard: Keith Bogans vs. Paul George
On the one hand we've got Bogans, who as the starting shooting guard for the Eastern Conference's best team is ranked 131st among active guards in points per game, and the other hand we've got George, a rookie who's only been a starter for the last quarter of the season. Does either team really have what could be considered an advantage at this position?
George has come on rather well in the second half of his rookie campaign, but by comparison Keith Bogans has postseason experience with the Magic and Spurs and comes into the series a lot more seasoned than his burgeoning counterpart. It would be surprising to have either player truly win (or lose, for that matter) a game in this series, and for that reason it's too hard to rate one higher than the other. We'll call this one a wash
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger
If any Pacer is going to win a game for the Pacers in this series, it's going to have to be Danny Granger, easily their best player. While his shot selection isn't always the smartest, he is a guy that pours in the buckets and should have a slight edge over Chicago's Luol Deng.
That's not to take anything away from Deng, who is having arguably the best season of his career and plays as well as anybody off of D-Rose. However, Granger is a more gifted scorer and Indiana's first option. He's going to have more opportunities to excel on a grander scale in this series.
Still, it says something about how not close this series is going to be when it's this difficult to choose between Chicago's third best player and Indiana's best player. Granger's better, but not by much.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Tyler Hansbrough
From almost the moment that Pacers head coach Frank Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien about halfway through the season, Tyler Hansbrough came alive as an NBA player. He rattled off a streak of games in March where he scored 20+ points in 6 of 7 straight games. Despite the surge, though, he's cooled off a bit as the regular season has calmed down, and even at his best he's got nowhere near the pedigree of Carlos Boozer.
Boozer, who averages almost twice as many rebounds per game as Hansbrough does, has several season's worth of playoff experience to go off of, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals with Utah back in 2007. His size, statistical output, and experience (these will be Hansbrough's first playoff games, by comparison), make Boozer the easy favorite in this particular matchup.
Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert
This should be one of the more entertaining match-ups to watch in this particular series since both teams' centers are so aggressive defensively and have a little bit of versatility on the offensive end of the floor, as well. Hibbert is the superior scorer and shot-blocker, but Noah is the better rebounder and passer. Both guys are the lynch-pins for their team's defense.
All that said, Noah does a little bit more for his team than Hibbert does, despite the fact that Joakim has struggled a bit to close out the regular season. Rebounding is such an important part of playoff basketball, and Noah is so much better at it than Hibbert. Throw in Noah's very obvious spirited nature and the gasoline he tends to pour onto the competitive fire, and his intangibles make him more valuable to the Bulls than Hibbert is to the Pacers.
Both teams are going to need their bigs to play a great series, but Noah just seems like the guy most poised to actually do it.
Bench: Taj Gibson, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, & Omer Asik vs. Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price, Jeff Foster, and Dahntay Jones
The Chicago Bulls have one of the best second units in the league, and the self-named "Bench Mob" has been holding things down for the starters like pros all year long. Gibson could easily be a starting power forward in this league, Kurt Thomas throws 'bows and anchors the second-team defense, Kyle Korver is probably the most gifted non-Rose offensive player on the roster capable of spreading the floor, and Brewer is an athletic defensive specialist who will likely spend most of his time locking down Paul George and Danny Granger.
While Mike Dunleavy brings loads of scoring off the Indiana bench, and Josh McRoberts has far exceeded anyone's expectations this year, the rest of their bench unit doesn't come close to Chicago's, either in talent or in depth. It's bad enough that Chicago's first unit it so much better than Indy's, but the fact that their second unit is also this much better doesn't bode well for the Pacers.
Coaching – Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel
As much as Vogel did for turning around Indiana's season, Thibodeau is the superior coach in just about every way imaginable. Where Vogel is an interim head coach after assistant coaching under Jim O'Brien for ten years, Thibodeau is a legit Coach of the Year candidate two years removed from a championship as an assistant with the Boston Celtics. And that's not mentioning the 22 years of NBA assistant coaching experience he had before getting his first head position with Chicago this past year.
Thibs preaches defense, and he preaches 48 minutes of perfection. He's got a system that his players have spent all year buying into. Vogel, though a promising young coach, doesn't have anywhere near the experience or the system that Thibodeau does. While it won't be for lack of trying, it's nearly impossible to see Vogel out-coaching Thibodeau.
Prediction: Bulls in 4