CHICAGO | The Bulls have a world of worry to contend with and it's not the Derrick Rose daily injury report.
It's the Indiana Pacers (insert hisses and boos), who want what the Bulls have been for some time — the Miami Heat's No. 1 challenger for the Eastern Conference title.
The role reversal is now in place.
Indiana tipped off against the Bulls on Saturday night at 9-0, with Miami 6-3 and Chicago 4-3.
The NBA senses something special here, perhaps a new bully on the block, a genuine contender, and has given the Pacers 17 nationally-televised games — proving Indiana is much more than corn and John Deere signs.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a man whose emotions are flat-line until game time, probably hates watching film on these Pacers.
"Their bigs are real tough inside but Paul George is a superstar who puts a lot of pressure on you," Thibodeau said in his pre-game chat with media.
"(Lance) Stephenson has played really well. George Hill is one of those guys who's under the radar. C.J. (Wilson) can start or come off the bench and (Luis) Scola is a starter when he comes off the bench.
"They''re very, very deep. We have a lot of respect for them," Thibodeau added.
And don't forget 7-foot-2 shot gobbler Roy Hibbert or power forward David West, who smiles even less than Thibodeau.
"They're tied together the way they play," Thibodeau said. "West is under-rated as a defender. He brings so much toughness."
The Pacers made a conscious effort to improve defensively the last two seasons and it's paying off. Their play above the rim is downright scary with Hibbert blocking nearly five shots a game.
And as teams limit taking it to the rack, the Pacers benefit even more in the rebounding battle and with their perimeter defense.
"That's what we do — make it difficult for you to score," said Hill, who learned the importance of defense playing for the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich.
The Pacers are extremely physical, but not dirty, they insist.
Offensively, their starters all average 11 points or more a game, led by George at 24.6. And they still don't have Danny Granger (strained left calf), their long-time team MVP until George emerged.
"Our guys are enjoying this. But they're staying very grounded and level headed," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of the early spotlight. "We're off to a good start. That's all it is."
That business-like approach is key, along with good health and toughness as a part of any championship package.
Can't speak for the wild, wild Western Conference.
But in the East, the Indiana Pacers feel their time has come. The Heat and Bulls certainly have gotten the memo.