Heading into this season, I had always dreaded what would happen to the Bulls without Joakim Noah. With no viable backup in place, I figured losing Jo for any length of time would lead to a bunch of losses.
Prior to Monday night's game at Indiana, the Bulls had done a pretty admirable job defensively without their anchor. Sure they lost in Brooklyn and had some major issues down low for much of the game, but on the whole, the Bulls did a nice job on the defensive end against the Nets. And against the Hawks, the Bulls smothered an Atlanta team that seems perfectly willing to wilt whenever things start going south.
But the Noah-less Bulls were exposed pretty badly against the Pacers, giving up 111 points on 52.7 percent shooting. Since the Bulls extended the game with some silly late fouling, they finished with over 100 points themselves, ending their 41-game streak of winning when scoring over 100 points. Funny enough (or not), the last time the Bulls scored over 100 and lost was March 18, 2011 against the...Pacers.
The Bulls were also out-rebounded 47-35 on Monday, a result of going small a good portion of the game. Going small against a big team like the Pacers is not often a recipe for success, and I had hoped the return of Carlos Boozer to the lineup from a hamstring injury would allow the Bulls to go with more traditional lineups. The problem, of course, was that Boozer was mostly ineffective and the starting unit as a whole was simply dreadful.
Looking back at the ugly numbers, the starting unit of Nate Robinson/Richard Hamilton/Luol Deng/Boozer/Taj Gibson was a woeful -17 in 12 minutes. They made just 6-of-21 shots and went 1-of-4 from three. Their net rating was a MINUS 67.9! About the only decent thing this group did was rebound, as they grabbed 85.7 percent of the available defensive rebounds and 28.6 percent of the offensive ones. But that alone couldn't prevent the overall suckage.
Pretty much all the lineups featuring Boozer stunk, and since Tom Thibodeau apparently has banished Nazr Mohammed to Scalabrine Status (without the fanfare), the Bulls decided to go with small ball for much of the game again. The primary lineup used was Nate/Marco Belinelli/Jimmy Butler/Deng/Taj, and they honestly weren't that bad. They posted a +2 in 16 minutes and barely eked out a positive net rating.
However, there were some very noticeable defensive issues, such as Deng having a nightmare of a time trying to guard David West. Deng has shown an ability to play the 4 pretty well in the past, but that simply didn't happen against the physical West. The Pacers' power forward had 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting and pretty much got any look he wanted. And I have to imagine that being forced to guard West didn't help Deng's offense, which could explain his 4-of-18 shooting night.
The other main issue with the small ball was, predictably, the rebounding. The Pacers are one of the top rebounding teams in the NBA, and they absolutely throttled the small Bulls lineup. That primary Bulls small ball unit grabbed just 56.3 percent of the available defensive rebounds and only managed to get 14.3 percent of the offensive boards. Not good, but not really unexpected given the Pacers' ability to rebound.
The Bulls still managed to impressively keep the game close despite the Pacers playing really well, but for the second straight game in the series, were on the wrong end of a questionable call late. Thus, the Bulls are 0-2 against the Pacers this year, which has to give Indiana some confidence going forward, regardless of who has been missing these games.
So how worried should the Bulls be if they match up with these Pacers in the postseason?
Obviously, there should be some different faces in the lineup come playoff time. Noah will hopefully be fully over his plantar fasciitis, and of course, there's that Derrick Rose guy. And I guess Kirk Hinrich too.
But the Pacers will look different as well, as they are awaiting the return of their best player (or is he anymore?) in Danny Granger from his own knee injury. In theory, Granger should bolster the Pacers' mediocre offense and provide another go-to option at the end of games, although I've never been impressed by his ability to be a closer. He surely wasn't all that good when the Bulls beat the Pacers in the 2011 postseason.
But what will really be interesting to watch is how Granger and Paul George mesh now that George has excelled in his duties as "star" player. During the postgame of Monday's game, CSN's Kendall Gill pondered that Granger would hurt the Pacers initially and that he would steal minutes from George. While the latter is certainly not going to happen, it wouldn't be surprising if the Pacers did struggle somewhat acclimating Granger back into the lineup (the same could happen to the Bulls with Rose as well).
The hope obviously for the Pacers would be that Granger and George would figure things out, and if they do, they would certainly be very dangerous. Their frontcourt would be REALLY good if Roy Hibbert didn't suck complete ass offensively, but even with that oaf botching layups left and right, the Pacers are still beasts on the glass and elite defensively.
The Pacers certainly might look to make a move or two at the deadline, as their bench is mostly garbage and they could use some more help on the wings. The return of Granger should fix some of those issues, but there's also the possibility of trading him if the Pacers are worried about his health and are completely comfortable with the 22-year-old George being the alpha dog. Fox Sports' Sam Amico has said the Pacers are "taking and making exploratory calls" regarding Granger, so that's something to monitor.
Ultimately, a fully (or at least mostly) healthy Bulls team would likely be favored over the Pacers in a playoff series whether they trade Granger or not. The Bulls can match up just fine in the frontcourt when they don't have to play small, and the emergence of Jimmy Butler on the wing is really helpful when it comes to guarding George and Granger if he's around. The Bulls' bench is definitely better overall, and if Rose is anywhere close to Rose, there's another advantage.
A playoff series against the Pacers definitely wouldn't be a cake walk, but I'd feel really good about the Bulls' chances as long as they're healthy. Now they just have to get that healthy part right.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com