By Dennis Glade
---- — Elite level talent is so rare in sports, when you get a hold of it, you have to take full advantage. The Chicago Bulls saw how valuable that talent can be when shooting guard Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL in the first round of the 2012 playoffs against Philadelphia. Last season turned into a soap opera of when Rose would return to the court, and he never did. Yes, the Bulls beat the Nets in seven games in the first round before losing in five to eventual champion Miami in the next round. Rose is such a special player that he makes Chicago one of the top five teams in the NBA when healthy.
All indications are he is back to 100 percent as he has torched opposing defense's in the preseason. I know what you're thinking — it's just the preseason. Rose needed to prove he could still move the way he did before the injury and thus far he has proved that without a shadow of the doubt. All last season we got to see the Adidas campaign chronicling Rose's comeback, and Tuesday evening we'll finally get to see No. 1 back on the court. Of course, Rose's first game back will be at American Airlines Arena in Miami following the Heat's ring ceremony and banner raising to celebrate their second consecutive NBA title.
Since Rose last stepped on the court in a Bulls uniform the entire NBA landscape has changed. LeBron James is a two-time champion and no longer thought to be inferior in clutch moments. James' team, the Heat, have taken the mantle as the league's dominant favorite to become the first team since the 2000-2002 Lakers to win three straight titles. The Bulls were a major regular season challenger to Miami in LeBron's first season with the Heat, but the Bulls went out meekly in five games in the 2011 East Finals. Nothing has changed to make you think the Bulls are any closer to dethroning Miami, but another challenger from the midwest has emerged — the Indiana Pacers.
In 2011, Rose's last full season, the Pacers lost to the Bulls in five games in the first round, but it was evident the Pacers, led by coach Frank Vogel were on the rise. In 2012, the Pacers met the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Despite taking a 2-1 lead, the Heat steamrolled through the next three games to eliminate Indiana. Fast forward to last May. The Pacers gave the defending champion Heat all they could handle in the seven-game grudge match. Roy Hibbert played the best basketball of his life, David West manhandled Chris Bosh and any other front court player, Paul George showed why he's a future star and Lance Stephenson did his best to annoy LeBron James. The Heat won the series, but the entire league was put on notice that the Pacers are a real threat to win the 2014 championship.
Indiana picked up big man Luis Scola and welcome back former All-Star forward Danny Granger from an injury riddled 2012-13 season to bolster an already strong bench. The only discernable weakness is at point guard, where IUPUI graduate George Hill is a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard. The Pacers are coming hard for Miami, and the Heat know this. With every creak of Dwyane Wade's knee, the Heat become less feared. Yes, they still have LeBron James, but he can't win the NBA championship all by himself as last year illustrated. If not for a clutch Ray Allen 3-pointer, James would be sitting at 1-3 in four career NBA Finals, but he did make that, and here we are.
Indiana is the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, and the only true challenger to Miami for a spot in the NBA Finals. Chicago faces the same problem they did when Rose was healthy — who else will step up after the 2011 MVP. Rose can't do it alone, LeBron can take him out of his game with suffocating defense. Another challenger being mentioned is Brooklyn. The Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a trade with the Celtics to go along with All-Star point guard Deron Williams and rookie coach Jason Kidd. The Nets will finish no higher than fourth in the Eastern Conference and fall to Indiana or Miami in the second round of the playoffs. If we're lucky, we'll get to see Indiana or Miami against Chicago in the second round.
This year's Pacers have the best shot of anyone in the past three years to knock off the Heat. The only question is whether or not these Pacers have what it takes to knock off the three-time Eastern Conference champions four times in a seven game series. We're about to find out — the game's start Tuesday night.