CHICAGO – Nine-and-0 was a lark, a hoot and a flag-planting of sorts for the Indiana Pacers, who made it clear through the first three weeks of 2013-14 how deadly serious they intended to be about this season.
As for 9-1, where Indiana sits after its 110-94 drubbing by Chicago Saturday night at United Center, it doesn’t look appreciably different from that gaudy 9-0. But it is, if the Pacers want it to be. Instead of riding along on a wave of specialness that buoyed them and grabbed some spotlight as the NBA’s last unbeaten team, the Pacers now are grounded. Sober. They’ll report for work Monday like the blue-collar bunch they are, five months of Eastern Conference grit ‘n’ grind awaiting them.
“There’s so much that we took away from [the streak] already,” guard Paul George said after his 3-of-14, 12-point performance. “I wouldn’t say it’s good – it’s never good to lose – but now it’s back to reality.”
Said center Roy Hibbert: “One game. It wasn’t going to last forever. But to me, the season starts now. See how we handle adversity and bounce back. We haven’t been challenged like this. We have to show what we’re made of.”
Look, the Pacers knew it was going to end and, if pressed for a guess, many of them might have picked Saturday. Both teams were playing the tail end of back-to-back sets, both teams had traveled (Chicago from Toronto, Indiana after a home game against Milwaukee). But the Bulls had home court to protect, had lost the first clash between the Central Division rivals by 17 on Nov. 6 and had their own mini-streak of three victories to extend.
So they came out hot, hit 9 of their first 11 3-point shots, put up 60 points by halftime on the league’s No. 1 defensive club and cruised from there.
There was nothing traumatic about Indiana kicking away a game, and maybe coach Frank Vogel truly hadn’t been craving a teachable moment amid all the winning. But he has one now, which can only serve the Pacers well as they chase and get chased by Miami, Chicago and presumably at some point, Brooklyn and New York.
“It’s so early in the year,” forward David West said. “What I will say about tonight is that, if we don’t bring a certain level of IQ, a certain level of straightforwardness in terms of how we want to approach each and every game, we can beat teams like Milwaukee and whoever else playing a certain way but we can’t beat good teams. Especially in their buildings, playing undisciplined basketball, which I thought we did on the defensive end.”
Losing one didn’t rock the Pacers’ world. But it did hit where it hurts for a club that draws its identity on defense.
“I just thought they were too comfortable,” West said. “The ball was moving too frequently around the perimeter. [Derrick] Rose on one side, [Luol] Deng on the other side, back – it was just too much. We weren’t able to put a halt to their business, of forcing them into things that they were uncomfortable with.”
There was a little testiness late, with Carlos Boozer and Chris Copeland tossed near the end of the final quarter less for shoving than to avoid lighting any fuses. The Bulls resent the Pacers’ ascension last season while Rose was out, the Pacers won’t yield an inch to Chicago or anyone else that wants to tilt at their title ambitions.
George bristled a little when reminded about his comments after the Nov. 6 game, when he talked of the Pacers wanting to “step away from that shadow as the ‘little brothers’ of this division” and needled a little by telling NBA.com: “Their success is the Michael Jordan era. This is a new age, this is new team. It’s our till they take it.”
“It was completely taken out of context,” George said. “What I meant by that is, I agree with what Derrick Rose said. It’s no rivalry. We haven’t won the championship. The team to beat is Miami. I mean, all that was just taken out of context.”
Actually, it wasn’t taken out of context at all. But it was blown out of proportion by some who aren’t used to saucy talk coming out of Indianapolis.
Nobody has won a thing yet, not even Miami if we’re talking strictly about the 2014 edition of the Larry O’Brien trophy. The next five months mostly will be about churning, and learning, and yearning, and the truest statement of the night came from Hibbert when he said, “We’ll see them again.”
They’ll all see each other again, plenty, between now and springtime.