Even though it was the Philadelphia 76ers who captured hearts, minds and the No. 1 slot in the always important NBA Internet power rankings after the first week of meaningful play, it's the Indiana Pacers who have been the league's most impressive team to start the young season. It isn't really even up for debate. The Pacers are the league's only remaining unbeaten team, sitting at the top of the team defensive efficiency standings just like they did to end last season.
Of course, all of the typical sample size caveats still apply here: it has, after all, been four damn games. The Pacers haven't exactly faced a murder's row of competition either, as their opponents combine to have a 7-9 record thus far and none of the four reached the playoffs last season.
Yet, unlike with the 76ers' hot start, the math actually checks out with Indiana. We knew they would be one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference barring a major injury or two. We knew they had a great young talent in Paul George who is only getting better and one of the league's very best defensive squads. We knew they'd be a force to reckon with for our Chicago Bulls all season.
The Pacers are going to be a handful, and they already look that way. The Bulls play this team four times (twice in November, twice in March) with the first of those meetings coming Wednesday night in Indiana. It will be a much-needed tough test for the Bulls after stumbling out of the gate 1-2 against a team it sure seems they don't care for much. Remember Tom Thibodeau giving Derrick Rose his first extended minutes in preseason by reinserting him late into a home game, giving the Bulls the win and ensuring the Pacers didn't even get to experience victory against the Bulls in a meaningless game? Yeah, that was pretty cool.
Listen, the Pacers are a rival. All of the boxes are checked here.
- The Pacers are a regional foe who play only a short drive from Chicago.
- They play exactly like the Bulls, with defense being priority No. 1 and an overgrown front line being their biggest advantage in nearly every game. They're just as physical.
- There is some history here too, at least if you're the kind of person who every so often wakes up in a cold sweat from the image of Reggie Miller doing goddamn figure skating spins. (guilty)
The fact that Rose said this wasn't a rivalry just makes this even more of a rivalry. Of course the Pacers are a rival. Bless Rose's heart, but the quote didn't make much sense. Let's revisit it:
"People say that it's a rivalry, but I don't really see it," Rose said before scoring 32 points in the team's 103-98 win against the Pacers. "I say the team that is more like a rivalry is when Darren Collison was on the team. That one was more like a rivalry, but this team is a great team. They've already proven themselves last year by making it to the Eastern Conference finals.
"If anything, by probably in a year or two, it could become a rival. But right now, people say it's a rival. ... I just don't see it right now."
The Pacers team the Bulls played in the 2011 playoffs was not this Pacers team. That one was more goon than good. That one had a rookie Paul George who averaged only six points per game on 30.3 percent shooting in the five-game playoff series. The Pacers in the here and the now are just a wrecking ball in every conceivable way.
The conventional wisdom has been that the Bulls' biggest advantage over the Pacers was that the Pacers lacked a truly special talent like Rose at the end of games. It was certainly the case in the 2011 postseason. But now? No one here is trying to make too much out of Rose's early-season struggles, but it's worth acknowledging that George has basically been Rose's diametric opposite: he's killing folks and suddenly looks like one of the 10 best players in the league.
I don't think that's hyperbole, or a conclusion drawn too early. George broke out last season, particularly in the playoffs when the Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games and George dunked all over Birdman's existence and got dapped by LeBron mid-game. Real recognize real, and all of that. The fact is, George wasn't a killer in the regular season a year ago, even though he was still very good. He only shot 41.9 percent from the field in averaging 17.4 points per game. As mentioned, his star really grew in the playoffs and he seems to carried that momentum over perfectly to this new season.
George's play (remember: it's only been four games!) has been pretty phenomenal. He's averaging 27 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. He's shooting 52.9 percent from the floor and 45.2 percent on an insane 7.8 attempts from three-point range. He's averaging 6.3 free throw attempts, nearly three more than last season.
He can score in just about every way possible, either all by himself or from finishing a look created by a teammate. George has made only one less field goal unassisted (18) than he has assisted. He's shooting 64.7 percent at the rim.
These numbers will come down some, because they're simply too astronomical right now. But does anyone really doubt George is capable of making the leap to become one of the league's very best players? I don't. He's 19 months younger than Rose and has already proven himself to be damn good. The sky is the limit, I would say.
He can also guard Rose in crunch-time if need be. George is considered one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league, with top flight athleticism, quick hands, an innate sense of positioning and a nearly seven-foot wingspan. All of that stuff matters. We've seen Rose have trouble with bigger defenders on the perimeter in the past (LeBron), and George certainly seems like he could potentially occupy that same role.
It's not unreasonable to believe the Pacers could be tougher in the postseason than when the Bulls play them tonight, even with George playing out of his mind and teammate Lance Stephenson also performing at some unsustainably impressive levels right now.
Roy Hibbert is working himself back into shape, playing only 25.7 minutes per game and averaging a modest 8 and 8 (Hibbert averaged 17.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 36.5 minutes in the playoffs last season). Indiana also doesn't have Danny Granger yet, and though there's been some questioning of how much he'll really help, I don't buy it at all. He's going to help a lot. Granger is a 6'9, 230 lbs. forward who hit at least two three-pointers per game at about a 38 percent clip in his last five healthy seasons. He's good, and he's not taking anything away from George. He's taking Sam Young's minutes.
The point here is that the Pacers are for real, and not just because they've blitzed the league in the opening week of the season. This start has just been confirmation of what we saw last season, that Indiana is already awesome and has a ceiling a notch or two above where they had been playing.
It's easy to worry about this game from the Bulls' perspective, but I think it might be just what they need to wake up. Tom Thibodeau had the team going hard in practice during their four days off, and why not: the Bulls have sucked so far, so they might as well put some work in.
The Bulls will come around, I don't doubt that at all. Hopefully it will happen tonight. But even when the Bulls do reach their peak level of performance, how much better they'll be than the Pacers remains very much up for debate.
Paul George is a stud, their defense is pristine, their toughness and physicality cannot be questioned. Sound familiar? This is the very definition of a rival. Tonight's game is only the beginning.