By Conrad Brunner, Pacers.com
Darren Collison draws the toughest assignment of this series, and perhaps of the NBA postseason in general, in Derrick Rose. The leading candidate for NBA MVP, Rose has had a spectacular season and is without question the engine that drives Chicago's success. He entered the league as a superior slasher and creator and has strengthened his mid-range game as well as his on-ball defense in the past couple of seasons. He averaged 27 points, 6.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds against the Pacers this season and had something memorable in just about each game. He tied his career high with 42, including 19 of the team's final 20 in regulation, to bring the Bulls back to force overtime on March 18 in Conseco Fieldhouse, though the Pacers eventually won. On Jan. 29, he wasn't supposed to play due to a bout with painful stomach ulcers but produced 20 points and seven assists. On Jan. 14, he scored 12 of his 29 in the pivotal third quarter, and on Dec. 13 he picked up the first technical foul of his career, injured his left ankle and sprained his right wrist but had 17 points and 12 rebounds. Collison has come on strong down the stretch, showing much more assertiveness and confidence on the attack as well as a deadly mid-range game -- hitting more than 70 percent of his shots inside the 3-point line in the final eight.
In the home of perhaps the greatest shooting guard ever to grace the NBA, both teams offer up role-players rather than stars at this position. Indiana starts rookie Paul George, a capable scorer who has not been called upon to do so with much frequency since entering the starting lineup for the final 19 games of the regular season. His role is to provide energy, defense and rebounding while offering up the occasional 3-pointer or transition dunk. Chicago counters with Keith Bogans, a journeyman who fills much the same role as George.
Though Danny Granger is the only Indiana starter with playoff experience, those six games against the Nets in 2006 were as a role-player, not the face of the franchise. Now, Granger will have the opportunity to measure himself in the crucible of the playoffs. He had a solid season, averaging better than 20 points for the third straight year, although his numbers declined. As the postseason has drawn closer he has taken his game into the lane, posting up more frequently and attacking off the dribble in order to create trips to the line. He averaged 20 points but shot just 37 percent against the Bulls, though he made half of his 12 attempts from the arc. Luol Deng is Chicago's quiet standout, a guy that manages to fly beneath the radar despite a strong all-around game. Deng averaged 18 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists against the Pacers, typically solid numbers.
This Tobacco Road matchup could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the series. North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough was the Pacers' leading scorer in his two games against the Bulls, averaging 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds while hitting 57 percent of his shots. Though his overall productivity dipped late in the season as teams crowded his mid-range jump shot, Hansbrough showed signs of developing nice counter moves in the final weeks. It may not be coincidental that the one game the Pacers won from Chicago during the regular season, Duke product Carlos Boozer missed. The prototype of the muscular low-post wide-bodies that have troubled Indiana's interior defense throughout the season, Boozer averaged 20 points and 11.3 rebounds and made 52 percent of his shots in three games against Indiana.
One of the biggest reasons the Pacers struggled against Chicago was the Bulls' ability to deny good looks in the post to Roy Hibbert while challenging him relentlessly on those occasions when he was able to get the ball in scoring position. Hibbert averaged just 6.3 points on 31 percent shooting against Chicago, a tribute to the work of Bulls starter Joakim Noah. One of the top defensive centers in the league, Noah plays with unusual energy for a big man. He averaged a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) for the season and hit 12-of-15 shots in two games against the Pacers. He tweaked an ankle late in the regular season but it doesn't appear to be a major issue.
Both teams have solid depth across the board. Indiana has veterans Mike Dunleavy and Brandon Rush as primary scoring options at the wings, high-flying energy source Josh McRoberts backing up Hansbrough at power forward and solid veteran Jeff Foster behind Hibbert in the middle. Second-year guard A.J. Price has had ups and downs as Darren Collison's backup but veteran T.J. Ford will be available if needed. Chicago brings shooters Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson and slasher Ronnie Brewer off the bench on the perimeter and has athletic Taj Gibson and a strong veteran presence in Kurt Thomas, not to mention a promising young center in Omer Asik.
Both will be in the first seat on the bench for the first time in the playoffs but Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has years in the grinder as a top assistant in Boston. Thibodeau has built a reputation as one of the best defensive strategists and tacticians in the game and the Bulls have improved markedly in his first season at the helm. Frank Vogel inherited a team that was 10 games under .500 in late January but used the power of positive thinking, not to mention some well-placed lineup, rotation and schematic changes, to turn around the Pacers' season.'
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Pacers will be overcoming their lack of postseason experience. Granger is the only starter with any, and he has just six games as a rookie in 2006. With a rookie (George), two second-year players (Collison and Hansbrough) and a third-year pro (Hibbert) in the starting lineup, the Pacers will at the very least benefit from the learning experience offered by this series. They are a confident and positive bunch that plays with high energy and intensity and has shown the ability to compete with the Bulls. Chicago has its own challenge in dealing with the weight of expectations for the first time in years. When you enter the playoffs as the top seed, winning isn't an option and the pressure could show if the Pacers can get one of the first two in Chicago. Both teams enter the series as healthy as could be expected with no major issues to report.
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