Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger made headlines with his candor this week — he said he’d rather face the Bulls than the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs — and provided a perfect backdrop for the Bulls-Pacers series.
Granger is an All-Star caliber player, one of the best shooting forwards in the NBA. He’s the Pacers’ best player. And therein lies the biggest difference between the Bulls and the Pacers: Their best player is not a closer. The Bulls’ best player is one of the best closers in the game.
Though he’s a huge asset, Granger isn’t the go-to guy who carries you over the top in a close game.
In the Pacers’ lone victory over the Bulls on March 18, he scored zero points on 0-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter before hitting a three-pointer in overtime.
In a 110-89 loss at the UC on Jan. 29, Granger scored four points on 0-for-1 shooting in the fourth quarter when the Bulls pulled away.
In a 96-89 loss at Conseco Fieldhouse on Jan. 11, he scored eight points on 4-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls were leading by 18 to start the quarter.
Granger nails big shots, but more often than not his biggest ones in tight games get you close with 5:30 to go. Or he disappears completely. Against the Knicks on Sunday, Granger scored three points in the fourth quarter as the Pacers blew an 11-point lead and lost 110-109.
The difference between the Bulls and the Pacers is that the Bulls’ version of Granger — Luol Deng — no longer is the team’s best player. When Deng was in that role — or sharing it with Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich — the Bulls were not much more than what the Pacers are today: a nuisance with potential. Once the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose, the dynamic changed.
Against the Bulls, the Pacers need someone to step up and make Granger a complementary player. If the Pacers intend to win, they better come at the Bulls with more than Granger. Otherwise, Rose will make the difference.
WHEN THE BULLS HAVE THE BALL
The Pacers, more than most teams, struggle to contain Derrick Rose without giving up too much. When they held Rose to 17 points, Carlos Boozer (left) had 22 points and 18 rebounds. When they held Boozer to 14 points, Rose had 29 and 10 rebounds. With Boozer in the lineup against the Pacers, the Bulls were 3-0 and shot 47, 46 and 48 percent from the field. Without Boozer, they shot 41 percent and lost in OT. The Bulls had 16 offensive rebounds vs. the Pacers in that game.
WHEN THE PACERS HAVE THE BALL
The Bulls have a head start defensively putting Luol Deng on leading scorer Danny Granger (20.5 ppg). Granger (right) scores in spurts but hasn’t been able to sustain anything against the Bulls, averaging 20 points per game but shooting 37 percent from the field. Tyler Hansbrough burned the Bulls for 29 points last month, when he averaged 23.4 points in a seven-game stretch. But he’s averaging 10.7 ppg over his last 10. Rose will have to defend Darren Collison, who had 17 points and eight assists when the Pacers won in OT last month.
The Bulls value their bench, but they might not have an advantage against the Pacers, who can turn the game into a taffy pull with Jeff Foster, perennial Bulls foil James Posey and Josh McRoberts. A.J. Price has been productive in place of Collison. If Ronnie Brewer (sprained thumb) can’t play, the Bulls would be missing a key defensive cog to their second unit. C.J. Watson might get more time with Rose, which could be productive. Kyle Korver had a season-high 16 points against Indiana on Jan. 29, but he is just 4-for-13 on three-pointers against the Pacers.
Pacers 7-foot center Roy Hibbert is averaging 16 points and 7.4 rebounds in his last seven games. In three losses to the Bulls, Hibbert scored 10 points on 4-for-20 shooting. In the Pacers’ 115-108 victory, the big guy scored 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting against Joakim Noah and Omer Asik. The Pacers have lost the last 10 games in which Hibbert has scored 11 points or fewer. Noah had 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting with three rebounds in that game.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is in his first season as a head coach but has plenty of playoff experience as an assistant, including trips to the Finals with the Celtics in 2008 and last season. Frank Vogel, 37, a former video coordinator for Rick Pitino with the Celtics, was an assistant to Jim O’Brien when O’Brien was fired in January. He has been an assistant coach in the NBA for eight years, including 35 playoff games.
FACTS AND FIGURES
The Bulls have won nine consecutive games, 21 of their last 23 and had the best record (62-20) in the NBA this season. . . . The Bulls were 26-14 (.650) against playoff teams this season; the Pacers were 13-29 (.310). . . . The Pacers went 20-18 after Vogel took over for O’Brien but finished 13-17 after a 7-1 start. . . . The Bulls outrebounded the Pacers 48-41 and 46-39 at the United Center; the Pacers outrebounded the Bulls 53-52 and 50-46 at Conseco Fieldhouse. . . . The Pacers were fifth in the NBA in free-throw percentage (.782); the Bulls were 26th (.743). . . . The Bulls were 36-5 at home; the Pacers were 13-28 on the road. The Bulls were better on the road (26-15) than the Pacers were at home (24-17) this season.
Bulls in five games.