Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
Before the season started, it was assumed that the Bulls and Bucks would be the class of the Central Division. Through the first quarter of the 2010-11 campaign, however, it's been Indiana--Chicago's neighbor to the east, instead of the north--that has been the Bulls' main divisional competition.
Judging from the Bulls' 102-74 preseason rout of the Pacers, as well as their dismal season a year ago, hopes were dim for Indiana to recover anytime soon from the downhill spiral the franchise has been in since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," the 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons that occurred when the Pacers were last a legitimate contender. While the young team, at 11-11, isn't exactly a juggernaut, it has surprised observers around the league and in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, Indiana could sneak into one of the bottom playoff seeds if it maintains its strong play.
Many expect Milwaukee to rebound from its disappointing start and regain the magic of last season's "Fear the Deer" run to the playoffs, although much of that hinges upon whether star center Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and return to form. Regardless, Indiana's up-tempo style under head coach Jim O'Brien--seemingly on the hot seat every season for the past couple years--has started to click, as evidenced by games like their 144-113 shellacking of Denver (admittedly an anomaly), in which the Pacers benefited from a team-record 54-point third quarter; they shot 20-for-21 from the field in the period, with the lone miss a last-second heave from forward Josh McRoberts.
Star small forward Danny Granger has been the catalyst, bouncing back from a subpar, injury-plagued season--a year after his initial All-Star appearance--to score 21.1 points per game. The numbers aren't the most impressive of Granger's career and he isn't as efficient as he's been in the past, but league observers note that he's playing more unselfishly and has recommitted to the all-around game that first won him accolades in the league, following a humbling summer where he played limited minutes on the gold medal-winning FIBA World Championships USA Basketball squad.
Third-year center Roy Hibbert has been one of the league's most improved players in the early season. After losing weight and working with Hall of Famer Bill Walton in the offseason, the Georgetown product is averaging 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per contest, developing into one of the NBA's better young centers. Hibbert's uncanny shooting range and passing ability belie his 7-foot-2 size, as he often operates in the high post, but has displayed improved post moves, strength, mobility and stamina.
Perhaps most significant about the Pacers is the offseason addition of Darren Collison. A true point guard, the second-year former UCLA star was acquired via trade (along with veteran James Posey) and despite losing productive power forward Troy Murphy in the late-summer four-team deal, the organization now has their floor general of the future. After a first-team NBA all-rookie campaign with the Hornets a year ago, starting for New Orleans when superstar Chris Paul was sidelined, Collison is scoring 13.5 points and handing out 4.2 assists an outing as a full-time starter.
Add in the good health of oft-injured sharpshooters Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy, and the Pacers are actually competitive again on most nights. Taking all that into consideration, though, it still might not be enough to derail a focused Bulls team on a current five-game winning streak Monday evening at the United Center.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.