[Thanks to fleng2 for today's game preview -yfbb]
6:00 CT / 7:00 ET / 4:00 PT | BANKERS LIFE FIELDHOUSE, Indianapolis, IN
Tonight, the Bulls visit the East-leading Pacers in what may be a playoff preview. Technically, we still have a chance to win the division, but...yea. The two teams are constructed almost exactly the same way. Both teams have coaches that are devotees of Defense-ology (92.2 vs 92.3 opponent PPG) , boast DPOY-caliber centers, picked up the others' castoff free agents (side note: does anyone else feel like every team we play has a former Bull on it? Belinelli, JJ, Varnado, Bynum...) and are built around one superstar.
In the first 17 games of the season, the Pacers laid waste to the NBA. Except for this game.
...God, that hurts. Excuse me, I have to pass some eye water.
But as we wind down the season, the Pacers haven't been playing quite as well. Paul George was being touted as an MVP candidate before the New Year, but he has cooled off significantly. They're coming off a loss to the New York Phil Jacksons and there are glimmers of concern, with players publicly voicing concerns over the lack of team play.
Stan Van Gundy made a sarcastic comment at the MIT Sloan Conference about the uselessness of knowing how many miles George has run this season. But he's run 172.4 miles (4th in the league) and that's got to wear down legs. Lots of other teams have rested stars (Popovich, Spoelstra), but Vogel follows the Thibodeau School of No Rest, Ever. Hopefully George doesn't rediscover his form against us.
Both the Pacers and the Bulls have one eye on the standings. Indiana is holding on to a solid three game lead, but their schedule for the rest of the year is tougher than the Heat. They really want to hold on to that top seed.
The Bulls are chasing down the Raptors for the third seed. As much as I can't wait for every game of the Western playoffs, it's going to be really interesting seeing where the chips fall in the East. There are valid arguments to manipulating position to play the Pacers or the Heat (if we make the second round), but Thibs has always pushed them to win as many games as we can, and that's not going to change.
This should be fun though. The Pacers and the Bulls are as close to a rivalry as any in the modern NBA. Even in the preseason, both coaches had their starters in down the stretch. I'll let Jimmy take it away.
"They think they're a better team, we think we're the better team, so we're about to find out Friday. Two really competitive teams who just want to show who is better than who,'' Butler said. "I feel like both teams have a lot of good players that do a lot of things well, so it's going to be a dogfight until the very end.''
"We don't like them."
Expect suffocating defense, lots of bricks, lots of rebounds and whichever team reaches 80 first can probably pencil in a win. If we can split this home and home with the Pacers, I think the Bulls take that. After the Blazers next week, our schedule gets considerably softer.
We see the Celtics (2x), Hawks, Bucks, Wizards, Wolves, Pistons, Knicks, Magic and Bobcats to finish out the season. No, we're not going to win all of those games. But I'd say all of those games are winnable.
This game is a prove your mettle type of game. Let's get it tonight!
(Fun Fact: Noah is tied for 2nd in the NBA with 3 triple-doubles with Steph Curry. Lance Stephenson leads the league with 4. )
BULLS PROJECTED STARTERS
F - Dunleavy
F - Boozer
C - Noah
G - Butler
G - Hinrich
Bench - Gibson, Mohammed, Augustin (revenge game?), Snell, Murphy, Fredette
PACERS PROJECTED STARTERS
F - David West
F - Paul George
C - Roy Hibbert
G - Lance Stephenson
G - George Hill