Division rivalry means something for both teams
Saturday night’s game between the Pacers and Chicago Bulls wasn’t just your ordinary preseason tilt. Beyond the atmosphere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the lively crowd of 15,000 strong, guys on both sides were locked-in even though nothing was riding on the game.
Or was there something, like confidence or bragging rights?
Paul George agreed with the assessment of the crowd and conceded postgame that he didn’t treat it like the average preseason game.
“We want it to be a good rivalry, at least I want it to,” he said seated in his locker room chair with ice wrapped to his right shoulder. “It’s a fun team to play against and we’re going to be battling for years, especially battling for the Central Division. I just wanted an edge and to come out here to have a motivation to start the game off.”
One of the matchups I purposely kept a close eye on was George against Bulls forward Luol Deng. They were trading shots, giving a push here and and an elbow there. George wasn’t taking any possessions off, particularly on defense where he slid between screens and chased after Deng. After knocking down a huge 3-pointer at the other end, George turned the other way, hit his chest and could be seen shouting, “This is my house!”
Luis Scola, who the Pacers acquired in a trade with Phoenix during the offseason, admittedly was nervous before the game.
“I felt like my kids on the first day of school,” he said. ”I was thinking before the game started that it was almost a better atmosphere than any other game that I had last season.”
The Bulls won the Central Division title two seasons in a row, but after Derrick Rose went out with a knee injury, the Pacers pounced and won it last season. With young talent on both rosters, this is a rivalry that is just getting renewed.
Now with Rose back, Pacers coach Frank Vogel says their hands are full because he expects a lot from the Bulls.
“Contender to win the East, contender to win the title,” he said of the possibilities for this Bulls team. “That’s where they left off when he was last playing as the MVP.”
No doubt Rose was the center of attention tonight, making it the must-see game on the NBA docket for fans everywhere. And even he, with all the interest surrounding his return, took time to note the significance of the Pacers and this divisional rivalry.
“They proved their point to the league,” he said. “They made a difference. They made it far last year to the conference finals and they have young players where, we’re gonna grow old playing against each other in this league, especially with the team they have.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau echoed that thought Saturday morning before shootaround. He made it clear that he respects the job Vogel has done and recognized that the Pacers should only be even better with their offseason acquisitions — Scola, Chris Copeland and former Bulls guard, C.J. Watson.
“We’re fighting for something,” he said.
Danny Granger’s return raised the interest level in the game, just not nearly as much as the return of Rose. But even the ninth-year player sensed the raised stakes.
“Even though it was a preseason game, we know we’re going to be rivals at the end,” said Granger. “We kind of approached it that way. The game was way more physical than a normal preseason game. Both teams were trying to win.”
There is a rivalry here with these two similar and well-balanced teams. They’ll each keep tabs on the other’s record, as they both chase the division title. Then, it’s on to the playoffs and what could potentially be one heckuva a 2-3 postseason series.