INDIANAPOLIS — Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird, now the operations chief of the Indiana Pacers, really didn’t mean it the way he said it.
“We’re going to be playing against men,” Bird said after the Pacers’ practice on Thursday, when he was asked how he views the best-of-seven series between his eighth-seeded Pacers (37-45) and the top-seeded Bulls (62-20).
When asked if he was suggesting that his players are the boys in this matchup, Bird rephrased his statement.
“We’re going up against older, very talented and more experienced men,” Bird said. “Let’s say that. But we are a very young team, and this is going to be a great experience for my young guys. The Bulls have got probably the best player right now in the league, and they are also the hottest team going into the playoffs.”
When it comes to the NBA, Bird has some special insights. He, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan are credited with doing the most to help the NBA turn the marketing corner in the 1980s and, with the guidance of commissioner David Stern, start enjoying global popularity and unprecedented financial success.
Bird, a 12-time All-Star, already was a superstar when he led the Celtics to back-to-back, 3-0 playoff sweeps over the Bulls in 1986 and 1987. Still, he paid Jordan one of his highest compliments after Jordan scored a playoff-record 63 points at the Boston Garden.
“I called him ‘God in disguise.’ ” Bird said with a grin. “He played one heck of a game. It was one of the greatest individual efforts I’ve ever seen.”
The next time Bird battled the Bulls in the playoffs was when he was the rookie coach of the Pacers in 1997-98, the season he also was named coach of the year. Reggie Miller was his star player, and Jordan was thought by many to be the best player ever. Jordan and Miller staged a thrilling duel in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Bulls had to fight hard — sometimes literally — to eliminate the Pacers in seven games.
“That was one heck of a series,” Bird said. “They had Michael, [Dennis] Rodman, Scottie [Pippen] defensively. It made our offensive players rather nervous. We spent a lot of time trying to run players away from them. But they still found a way to recover.”
The Bulls went on to win their sixth and last championship that year.
This time, the Bulls are led by another guard — a smaller one in 6-3 Derrick Rose. Is Rose Bird’s NBA MVP?
“Well, I’m really a Kobe Bryant fan,” Bird said. “I also like LeBron James. And Dwight Howard is right up there with them. But you’re probably going to have to give it to Rose. They’ve been doing an excellent job. They made a coaching change, brought in some new players, their chemistry’s good, they’re winning, and Rose is their leader. So, obviously, you have to look at him.”
As for playing the Bulls in the playoffs, Birds said he still doesn’t believe his players really know what they are in for. This is Indiana’s first playoff series in five years.
“They’re about to find out that this is a totally different experience,” Bird said. “The intensity is greater, there is more pressure and the fans are much more excited. In terms of more physical play, we’re going to have to be the instigators and not the retaliators. And that’s going to be hard to do with young guys.”
While Bird praises the Bulls’ talent, defense, chemistry and coaching, he might be most impressed with their court demeanor.
“They look like they’re really having fun,” Bird said. “When you have all those things going for you, good things are going to happen.”