By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) While all eyes are on the glamorous, victorious Heat, champions of the Eastern Conference, Bulls fans would be wise to worry about the losers.
The Pacers got caught in a storm in Game 7, overwhelmed by superior talent and experience to the point that they became skittish, uncertain and clumsy. The intelligence and force of one of basketball's greatest-ever players was difficult enough for them to overcome, even without one temporarily-rejuvenated future Hall-of-Famer on one side, and another on the wing hitting threes.
The season ended for Indiana after an impressive scrap through the Hawks and the Knicks, finally bowing out only after pushing the favorites to the brink with physical interior play. They care about defense, and it is evident in their concentration and execution that the commitment goes beyond mere words.
The Bulls expect to return a finally-mentally-ready Derrick Rose to their lineup next year, leading a familiar starting group of now well-seasoned pros in what is perceived to be another static season of contending without really going for it. Gar Forman and John Paxson plan to retain as much salary-cap flexibility as possible for a luxury-tax offender, remodeling the bottom half of the roster with another merry band of cheap misfits for Tom Thibodeau to maximize and deploy. The regular-season wins will pile up again.
Problem is, now, the Pacers are better than the Bulls. And they might stay that way for a while.
Forward David West is a free agent, but most believe it likely that he re-signs. His comments have indicated nothing but a desire to remain a Pacer, the team is aware of his critical importance, and there is ample money available for a more than reasonable offer.
Talk of them using the amnesty provision on Danny Granger is wrong, since they already pushed that one-time button to jettison James Posey. Even so, Granger could still be an asset as the primary scoring option for their second unit, or a trade piece that helps them shore up that miserable bench: his expiring $14 million deal is attractive in itself.
The bigger issue is the rapid rise of their current players. Bulls fans can be as excited as they want about Jimmy Butler solidifying himself as a decent performer, but Paul George is now a genuine star. The 2013 NBA Most Improved Player and All-NBA 3rd-teamer is a two-way standout who has already taken the challenge of guarding Rose individually in the playoffs.
Center Roy Hibbert has surpassed the expectations many of us had for him as a plodding, pear-shaped kid out of college. He's not fast, but he works to run the floor. He's not quick, but his footwork is more polished. He has developed counters for his primary moves in the post, and learned to defend the basket without reaching and fouling. The height and weight can't be taught.
Lance Stephenson merited defensive attention from LeBron James, and is getting better and more aware with every minute he plays. Few in the league are as difficult to contain end-to-end off a defensive rebound.
And coach Frank Vogel's flinty, pugnacious style has been readily accepted. He clearly has their attention.
All it takes is one superior team to make a mockery of a supposed championship window, and the Heat have a current hold on the East. Their reign may be shorter-lived than previously believed, though, now that the miles on Dwyane Wade are evident, Chris Bosh still struggles to define his game, and contract clocks tick.
What's too bad for the Bulls is that somebody in their own division appears closer to calling "next."
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