INDIANAPOLIS -- The Bulls ran through the Central Division last season, losing one contest -- a late-season affair in which Derrick Rose notched a career-high point total before fouling out and the team fell in overtime -- the entire campaign. In the first round of the playoffs, the top-seeded Bulls took on the same team that beat, winning a hard-fought, 4-1 series.
That team, the Indiana Pacers, was a feisty, physical and youthful, if inexperienced bunch, featuring no All-Stars, an interim coach who was the youngest in the league and a home crowd that seemed to be at least 50-50 tilted in Chicago's favor (only three hours and change away by car, but still) during the team's first postseason in years. However, with the likes of David West -- the former Hornets All-Star power forward signed as a free agent recently -- and Indianapolis native George Hill, a draft-day trade acquisition from the Spurs, Indiana might not be back to the championship-contending days of Reggie Miller's prime, but they aren't the pushover Pacers of just a few seasons ago.
"Adding West, he's been a really good player in the league for a long time. Great pick-and-roll player, tough low-post player, terrific competitor," said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau after the team's Friday-morning shootaround. "I think Hill's an excellent player, can play both positions, can score the ball, can play-make, very good off the dribble. So, they're a team that has a lot of weapons."
Added Derrick Rose: "They added some pieces, man. Guys that are hard workers, that have proved themselves in the NBA, established themselves in the NBA as good hustle players, good scorers. But they're a team where their coaching staff I think is great. They definitely gave us a push for the first round of the playoffs last year and I think it'll help us, especially playing against a team like that in the preseason."
Rose should know, as the Pacers' physical defense -- then-rookie Paul George and veteran swingman Dahntay Jones counteracted his speed with their size, perhaps giving the Miami Heat a blueprint for the Eastern Conference Finals, in which the bigger LeBron James frequently guarded the MVP down the stretch of games -- provided at least a nuisance to him last spring, despite the Bulls advancing to the next round.
"It's going to be the same approach, knowing how their coaches are and the players, it's going to be a tough game. Even this game tonight, I'm prepared for a playoff atmosphere," Rose said Friday. "This is like a regular game to us. We're not approaching it lackadaisical. We know that it's time to get better. We can use this time to go out there and get chemistry. We added Rip Hamilton, we've got Jimmy Butler. The starting five hasn't played together against anyone in a very long time and we can use this to our advantage."
"Every game that we played them was a battle and somehow, we just got wins. When we first started off, they were lways the team that had the lead the majority of the game and we just found a way to win at the end," he continued. "That's just the way that they play. They hustle, they grind throughout the whole game. They've got great shooters and great chemistry on their team."
Hamilton, the newest Bulls player, has witnessed the Pacers' ups and downs over the years, as a member of the rival Pistons when Indiana was a legitimate title contender alongside Detroit. The aforementioned Miller, perhaps the greatest player in franchise history, was winding down his career, but had able assistance in promising then-young talents like defensive stalwart and ex-Bull Ron Artest, wing scorer Stephen Jackson, All-Star center Jermaine O'Neal and playmaking point guard Jamaal Tinsley, most of whom have seen their careers spiral downward since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," which occurred in Detroit.
"When we were playing here and playing against them in all those battles with Reggie and all those guys they had here, the fans were always good," Hamilton told CSNChicago.com Friday. "It's good for the city."
The unfortunate incident led to top Pacers executive Larry Bird shipping out most of the roster -- only veteran big man Jeff Foster, a target for Bulls fans last spring for his physical play against Rose, remains -- and rebuild. The team was a non-factor in the NBA for several seasons, but thanks to underrated draft picks and a lot of patience, they are poised to be a team the Bulls have to be concerned about within their division.
"I thought they made good moves and I think they're going to be a good team. It always sounds good, but I think the additions that they made, it can't do anything but make them better. I thought they were great against us in the playoffs. It was 4-1, but every game was tough. By adding those guys with experience and proven winners in the league -- George Hill coming from a program that knows how to win, the Spurs, and West did it with New Orleans -- I really think it's going to add some experience into their mix," Luol Deng, the Bulls' longest-tenured player and in his early days in the NBA when the Pacers were last a force in the league, told CSNChicago.com. "They made the playoffs last year. Now, you add those guys with experience and I thought their coach, when he took over last year, he did a great job in getting those guys committed to what he's trying to do, so I really think their going to be good."
Deng can identify with where the Pacers are now because it reminds him of how observers regarded the Bulls coming into last season. After their successful season a year ago, though, Deng knows teams like Indiana will be targeting them like big-game hunters.
"Last year, it was putting pieces together, exactly where Indiana is right now and a lot of people said, 'It sounds good, but let's see what they can do,' and we put in work," he said. "We did great, but now coming back, we know what we did and we know teams are going to be ready for us from the jump. So, coming in, we've got to try to come in ready."
In this truncated NBA free-agency period, the acquisition of West has gone under the radar, but although Chris Paul's former sidekick is coming off a severe knee injury, his game -- based more on shooting, finesse and strength than explosive athleticism -- should open things up for the Pacers by giving the young team some veteran experience, toughness to help Roy Hibbert battle in the paint and a playoff-tested secondary scorer to take some of the burden off small forward Danny Granger's shoulders.
"Great pick-and-pop player, a lot of experience, he's a vet," Carlos Boozer said of his power-forward counterpart, who he matched up with frequently in the Western Conference while with Utah and should be matched up with in the Bulls' home-and-home preseason set of games with Indiana. "Good player for them, good pickup."
Meanwhile, Hill, the hometown product -- not only did he attend high school in Indianapolis, he went to college at tiny IUPUI, minutes from Conseco Fieldhouse -- should contribute at both guard positions, either playing alongside the smallish Darren Collison, relieving him or usurping his starting role. But regardless of who he's matched up against on the Pacers, Rose won't take the Bulls' division rival lightly.
"I think this year will probably be different," said the league MVP. "But I'm prepared for anything."