These Pacers are not exactly known for their humility. It's a quality that made them an easy upstart to root for during their terrific seven-game battle with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last season, and one that works in the other direction when they're going up against the home team.
Roy Hibbert, the naturally charismatic, likable center Dwight Howard wishes he could be, should have endeared himself to the population at large by staying vertical in the face of LeBron James' banshee drives to the rim and by calling the media "motherfuckers" last spring. That was cool. When Paul George said "(the Bulls') success is the Michael Jordan era" and "It's ours till they take it" as if winning four more games than a team that lived and died by Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli is some sort of ribbon-worthy accomplishment, that was decidedly less cool.
It's not like George was unprovoked. Derrick Rose said this wasn't a rivalry when it so clearly is. The season is barely halfway through November and Bulls-Pacers already features on-court contention, off-court trash talk and all of the physical play you'd expect from two teams that mirror each other so closely. The only shame is that we have to wait until March to see these teams play again.
The Bulls got punched in the mouth in their first meeting at Indiana 10 days earlier. That's when we were waiting for the Bulls to click, for individual rust to wear off and for group cohesion to set in. It took a few games, but the Bulls team that pounded the Pacers by 16 in a game that wasn't nearly that close didn't resemble the one that got smacked not even two weeks earlier. They did it by hitting 11 three-pointers, sure, but the biggest difference between the first and second meeting with the Pacers was the Bulls' defense. It was the cap on a trend that had been starting to show over the previous three games.
We know how dominant the Bulls' defense can be when it's good, routinely ranking at or near the top of the league under Tom Thibodeau when the principle components can stay on the floor. The defense simply wasn't good at the start of the season, but already it seems as if it has turned a corner. What you saw on Saturday against Indiana was the Bulls' defense at its best: active and disciplined and deep, not taking a breather when Joakim Noah and the rest of the starters headed for the bench.
George had scored more than 20 points in each of Indiana's victories during their 9-0 start. On Saturday, he went 3-for-14 for 12 points. Lance Stephenson has been a revelation this year for the Pacers, but he only managed 12 points on 14 shots. The Bulls held the Pacers to just 40 percent shooting from the field, and it would have been a lot uglier if not for the 35-point fourth quarter the Pacers put up when the game was already decided.
Basically, Saturday's game was the Bulls doing what they do best. That means allowing no easy looks at the rim and challenging the pick-and-roll head-on.
The Bulls' defense is now the stingiest in the league when it comes to points allowed in the paint, allowing just 31.8 per game. That's Tom Thibodeau's strong-side zone system that thrives on packing the paint at work.
What's evident statistically was there on tape, too. The Bulls made it a point to stay in front of George and Stephenson on drives, particularly after high screens. It worked to perfection.
Look at Noah's footwork here, guessing correctly on which way George would come off the screen and then staying square with him the entire time. Taj Gibson is there to challenge the shot, too, and good luck to any opposing player who thinks he'll find success at the rim against those two.
Often times, the pack-the-paint strategy leaves three-point shooters wide open, but it's still dependent on the offense making the right read and then hitting the shot. That's something the Bulls were willing to bet against on Saturday and it kept paying off. Stephenson especially seemed to be fitted with blinders once he got off a high screen:
Notice how every Bulls defender is in the paint here. Stephenson has shooters, but the Bulls are still in position to defend a pass he never makes. Instead, Nazr Mohammed comes away with an easy block.
We saw it in Toronto, too. Look at just how much space Dwight Buycks has to work with here after getting the screen from Tyler Hansbrough. He sure as hell isn't getting to the rim, though, and the result is a missed jumper:
It's natural if this makes you worried about opponents catching fire from three, as they did in the Bulls' first four games. But the last four games, it really isn't happening. Opponents are shooting 29.5 percent on 71 attempts from three during that span. Why? Because when the Bulls do get everyone in the paint, they're fortunate enough to have the athletes on the perimeter to get out and recover from cheating inside.
Just look how active Jimmy Butler is on this play:
He's everywhere on that possession, and it ends in a contested corner three. The Bulls rank No. 8 in three-point attempts given up to opponents per game thus far, so it's clear the poor start was a product of poor contests and/or other teams hitting shots rather than pure volume that results from so often cheating inside.
It's not just the starters getting it done, either. There are real concerns about the bench this year, which is certainly the worst of Tom Thibodeau's time here. There's no one who can get their own offense like Marco and Nate last season; there's no beastly, young backup center to give Noah a break. But this bench, at least defensively, is playing about as well as the reserve units that came before this.
Here's a look at the Bulls' two most often used lineups this season.
That's some impressive defense from the reserve unit, captained, as well, by Luol Deng.
It's helped make the Bulls second overall in opponents' effective field goal percentage and No. 3 in team defense behind only the Pacers and Spurs. The Bulls are allowing 93.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark more than three points lower than the Pacers posted when they led the league in team defense a season ago. It's sure to go up as the season rolls on, but it's encouraging that it already seems like the Bulls have found their footing just eight games in.