Monday, the 31-8 Bulls host the 23-12 Indiana Pacers at the United Center. And, if you haven't noticed, the Pacers are on pace -- not only for the playoffs, but -- a top four seed to clinch homecourt for the first round.
Because of the Pacers, the Central Division isn't the cakewalk it was last year for the Bulls, who went undefeated in it through the season other than a Mar.18 loss to these Pacers -- their first since Apr. 6, 2010. The Pacers handed the Bulls their only divisional loss of this season on Jan. 25 and Derrick Rose said in his postgame comments, "I will never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game. I can't wait to play them again."
Tonight is "again".
The Pacers aren't an offensive powerhouse. They're along the 100.5 NBA average in points per 100 possessions (ORtg), according to Hoopdata, at 101.0 and below average in eFG% (.464 to the NBA average .482). There is no 20+ PPG scorer, let alone someone who threatens to drop 40 on you any given night. But they do have five players scoring over 10.0 PPG -- Danny Granger (18.3), Roy Hibbert (13.5), David West (12.4), Paul George (12.0), and Darren Collison (11.5) -- all strong second and third scoring options to have on most teams, making them a tandem with multiple threats, but multiple scorers need to perform well to light up the scoreboard. George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough (though struggling) coming off the bench are threats to any second unit defense to ignite short runs, closing gaps and extending leads.
Against the Bulls' NBA-2nd-most efficient DRtg (94.9), Indy's scorers need to over-perform a bit, along with their defense playing hard on every possession.
What's threatening about the Pacers to the Bulls is that they're extremely well-coached to get to the free throw line, take care of the basketball, and maximize broken plays and mistakes by opposing offenses -- as shown by their: NBA 5th-best 31.8% free throw rate; better than average 13.8% turnover rate (TOR); 9th-best 97.6 DRtg; and 7th-bests .469 opponents' eFG% and 14.9% TOR. The offense doesn't always look smooth, but they get to the line often by moving the ball closer to the hoop than most teams, with a well-above average 39.5 shots within nine feet and below average 17.8 shots from 16-23 feet.
They're 25th in the league in 3-point shots attempted, but 8th in percentage (.369) -- led by Collison's .418, George's .406, George's .406, Hill's .364, and Granger's .360. So collapsing to the middle begs for those shooters to find space and the efficient ball handlers to make the right pass to plenty of options to nail a three, if that help defense doesn't efficiently recover to challenge the shot. This is how Indy gets to the line so well, as defenses are too conscious of the shooters to commit enough to their help -- also knowing that over-committing to the help gives up better 3-point looks.
The Pacers are a tough squad. Do they challenge the Bulls or Heat for the Eastern Conference crown? No, but as a team that has a reasonable shot to beat just about any other East team in a seven-game series -- and a team that has a lethal combination of good coaching, athleticism, and hustle -- they're a team that won't just accumulate a lot of wins this regular season, but add to contenders' loss columns a bit, and seldom leave a more skilled winning opponent with too much to celebrate about.
That said, the Bulls should win this game. It's the tail-end of a back-to-back after a tough win in Philly last night and that ought not be discounted. But they're 14-2 at home this season, 50-7 in the Tom Thibodeau Era, and there's enough animosity dating back to the 2011 playoffs to make up for any energy deficit from Sunday night's game and the following travel.
More important, the Bulls are better. They're the NBA's 2nd-most efficient offense, much healthier than Jan. 25, while bigger, more talented, and even better coached than the Pacers. Expect Indy to throw everything they can at this game, but the Bulls are way too good for that to be enough.
And #DRoseNeverForgets. Right, Twitter?