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Steve Aschburner

Head coach Frank Vogel and the Pacers are improving, but are finding that they have a lot to learn.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Chicago is out in front in budding Bulls-Pacers rivalry

Posted Mar 6 2012 11:24AM

CHICAGO -- The before and after was striking Monday night at United Center. Before the Indiana Pacers felt the wrath of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, there was a rivalry game to be played, tinged with revenge, spiced with verbal barbs. After, one team was licking its figurative wounds, the other was more concerned with literal ones (Richard Hamilton again, C.J. Watson).

Before, Pacers coach Frank Vogel was riding a six-game winning streak, pointing mostly to consistency as the reason for any gap between his club and those just above them in the Eastern Conference standings. After, Vogel was talking in clipped answers about hustle stats, those training wheels of not-ready-for-prime-time teams, and trying to put behind him as quickly as possible the 20-point loss.

Before, Danny Granger had talked about Rose's grumble after Video Indiana beat the Bulls on their court back in January, when the reigning MVP took exception to the visitors' "celebrating" right up in their grills. "I'm sure he remembers it because we remember it," Granger had said. "We never back down from anything."

After, Granger backed down some from the short-term history. "We didn't celebrate," he corrected one reporter. "We high-fived and walked off the court, then we went on to the next game. We didn't take all that much pleasure in beating Chicago. The media talked about it -- I don't know what they saw -- but after the game, we were worried about the next game, we weren't worried about Chicago anymore. We lost [this] game. We're 1-1 with them in Chicago."

High-fived and walked off the court?

"Celebrating," Rose said. "An NBA game, say 'Bye' to the other opponent, then usually walk off, celebrate in the locker room. But it looked like they were celebrating. ... I don't know what they call it. I just don't like seeing it. I'm a person who doesn't celebrate after a big win or a loss or whatever. I don't show any emotions."

Rose doesn't go in much for dancing during All-Star introductions, either, but that's another story. He showed his emotions in his play Monday, recovering from a 1-of-9 start for a third quarter so big (11 points for him and a 33-13 smackdown by Chicago) that Rose didn't need to step back on the floor in the fourth. The Bulls were the ones who kept rolling with a seven-game winning streak. The Pacers again face the challenge of beating teams as good or better than themselves -- they're a .500 team against .500 (or better) teams.

"They're a better team than they were last year. I think everyone sees that," Bulls forward Luol Deng said, mentioning the clubs' closer-than-just-five-games playoff series of last spring. "They beat us last time. We don't want a team to keep beating us, no matter who it is. When a team keeps beating you, that's giving you a message."

The Bulls sent one back: It's a rivalry but it's not an even rivalry at this point. Indiana is a year or two behind, which could be problematic because Chicago hasn't yet gotten where it wants to go.

This isn't the Jordan-era Bulls ready to wrest the East from Detroit the way Detroit had done it against Boston. What we have here is a bunch of lobsters trying to crawl out of the pot all at once -- Miami's in there too, its Finals trip way short of its multiple-titles goal, and Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta and (for another 10 days or two months) Orlando want to be in that mix, too. The trick is to avoid the pattern of the 1980s, when the Celtics prevailed in the East most of the time, the Sixers snuck in one ring and three Finals trips and Milwaukee and everyone else was stuck pressing their noses against the glass.

The Pacers still aren't done; they have $14.5 million in cap space, are seeded with talent and depth at every spot and have a chemistry to envy. They need experience and, like the one they got Monday, more tests -- first to pass, then to ace. They could use another big, too, because with 35-year-old Jeff Foster hurting and Josh McRoberts gone, Indiana is a little toothless inside.

The Bulls are further long on the curve, with a division lead second only to Oklahoma City's and meatier worries at the moment than the Pacers, Hamilton's brittleness chief among them. He has played in just 16 games -- his 413 minutes are 181 fewer than Omer Asik -- and lasted just 83 seconds Monday before banging into Roy Hibbert and wilting off the court with a damaged right shoulder.

Nearly two-thirds through the schedule, the 34 year old hardly has been the offensive boost Chicago sought to ease the burden on Rose; Hamilton has contributed half as many points as the fellow he replaced, defensive-minded Keith Bogans. Mostly he has looked like a player in need of a full-body mask.

So, the Pacers' and the Bulls' worlds might turn over again by the time they meet again -- seven weeks from now, on April 25 in Indianapolis. Granger sounded like he was counting on it. Joakim Noah, who vowed to out-celebrate Hibbert "when" the Bulls won Monday, might not keep it all behind closed doors next time.

Meanwhile, Vogel and his players are going to need to make their performance Monday the "before" snapshot. Everything heading into that rubber match next month had better be the "after."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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