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Bulls vs. Pacers game preview: Bulls go for three straight without Rose, Butler, Taj

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]

The Grit 'N' Grind Bulls ARE BACK!

That's the big takeaway this week, after two games played without the Bulls' starting backcourt, which features a former league MVP and a current All-Star/All-Defensive Team beast. In their places, we started the microcosmic Aaron Brooks (generously listed at 6', the 30 year-old Brooks is averaging 10.7 points and 2.9 assists a game, while shooting a great 40.7% from three in 20.7 minutes per) and the erratic 6'7" (with a helpful 7' wingspan) second-year swingman Tony Snell. Snell only played 29 minutes last night, going 2-of-7 from the field for an underwhelming 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal; but was still instrumental in spacing the floor after averaging 13.6 points and 2.7 rebounds while shooting 61.4% from three (not a typo) in February (and this was after recording a DNP - Coach's Decision on the 4th). Teams have to respect him now.

Beyond the backcourt's contributions, though, the three biggest stories over the past few games have been the ascent of 24 year-old 6'10" Montenegrin rookie Nikola Mirotic, the reemergence of Joakim Noah as a de facto Point Center and hustling defensive stud, and Thibodeau's vastly improved minutes management even in the face of injuries to three of the Bulls' best seven players (yes, I am slotting Taj behind Niko now). Niko is averaging a solid 8.1 points and 4.5 boards in 17.8 minutes a game cumulatively, but over the last three, he has averaged 26 points (also not a typo), 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 11.7 free throw attempts per game (shooting 77.1% from the charity stripe in that time). This kid's looking more and more like the real thing (the phrase "next Dirk" was bandied around before the season got underway, a bit hyperbolically, but suddenly Mirotic really, truly has shown flashes of that future Hall of Famer's stellar skill set).

Noah, after looking spotty most of the season while recuperating from his mysterious knee scope over the summer, has finally started to look like the All-Star Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 who finished 4th in MVP voting. For the season, he is averaging 7.8 points, 10.1 rebounds (which translates to his second-highest per-36 minute rebound average ever, 11.7 per game), 4.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per, in a happily-reduced 31 minutes a game (down from 35.5 last year and 36.8 the year before, which are too darn many minutes for a center). But over the last 10 games, while still averaging 7.9 points a game, he is also pulling down 11.7 boards and dishing out 6.2 (!) dimes. He's got that ferocious moxie back, to the point where he can finally take down bigger guys again. He looks great.

Best of all, though, are Tom Thibodeau's minutes management and substitutions -- last night, he did some clever hockey-style offense/defense switching in the fourth quarter, including bringing in Snell and Noah for Pau and Moore (although, to be fair, Moore had been playing sound defense all game -- Thibs probably just wanted some additional length against the spry Andre Roberson) in between free throws with 28.8 seconds to go. He then promptly brought Pau and Moore back in for that crucial game-deciding 4.9-second stretch (where Pau assisted Moore on the clenching trey), and returning to Noah with the Thunder having possession for the final 2.1 seconds, where Noah pestered Westbrook into stepping out of bounds and turning the ball over, effectively sealing the Bulls' 108-105 W over an on-paper superior opponent.

I loved how Thibodeau handled the minutes of the Bulls' three bigs (well, four if you count Mike Dunleavy Jr., who did play some power forward on the night during his 37:33 logged), giving a restrained 33:45 to a balling Mirotic, 31:37 to the ancient Pau, and 30:38 to JoNo. Sure, MDJ played a bit more than usual, but in games like last night that's okay, since overall he's only averaging 28.9 minutes a game, and he was hot last night, going 3-for-6 from deep and adding 21 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

So Kirk Hinrich has been hobbled with turf toe over the past month, which, granted, must be at least partially the cause of his total two-way deterioration. That being said, it's not as if he had been too impressive before the injury. When the ascending, 6'4" E'Twaun Moore is clearly the superior deep-bench off-guard option (especially after what he did last night, playing spectacular defense on Russell Westbrook throughout the Bulls' victorious defeat of the Thunder, going 9-10 from the field for 19 points, and hitting this awesome game-winning baseline three on a kick-out from Pau Gasol with 4.9 seconds left in the contest), you've really got to re-think playing him more than even five minutes a night if you're Tom Thibodeau. Playing Kirk 12 minutes against the Wizards following the Bulls' rash of back court injuries is understandable, sure, but not acceptable. If he's hurt, let's just sit him. I mean, look what he did with those 12 minutes. He had a National TV Kirk day yesterday, playing 23:13 and going 3-of-4 from the field with one great cut and one clutch three, posting 7 points and 4 assists and only 2 turnovers. THAT was a good Kirk game, for the record. Moore, by the way, is averaging a sweet 37.5% from three (okay, fine, on only 0.6 attempts a game, but still) and 48.8% from the field, albeit in limited minutes (7.7 per).

The vastly-improved post-January Bulls are now sitting pretty as the Eastern Conference's 2-seed with a 39-23 record, and have gone 7-3 in their last ten. They've won their first two post-Rose/Butler games, and are looking to make it three tonight on a back-to-back against the Indiana Pacers. Even a few weeks ago, I would have called this game a gimme for our Bulls. But the Pacers are a different team now. Somehow, after sustaining the brutal losses of Paul George (#internationalstanchiongate) and Lance Stephenson (#mjgate) over the summer, and after a miserable start to the season, beset with additional injuries (starting point guard George Hill missed 39 of their first 44 games, and starting power forward David West was out for their first 15), they have persevered.

They had the best record in February (7-2) and now, with a 26-34 record, are mere percentage points behind the 26-33 Charlotte Hornets in the race for the 8th seed in the East. They will surely secure it if the newly minted PG-13 does indeed return to the court this season -- which may not happen for a few weeks yet, but is absolutely in the cards. The defensive-minded Hill has been on a tear as he's rounded into form, notching his first-ever triple double last week. The 6'2" 28 year-old IUPUI product is averaging 14.1 points and 4.4 assists in a mere 25.4 minutes per night (which translates to his best-ever per-36 minute averages of 20 points and 6.3 dimes), shooting a respectable 36.9% from three-point range and 44.5% from the field overall.

While the Pacers' much-ballyhooed 17 Seconds Or More/Smash Mouth Defense has been fairly on-point this season, considering their personnel downgrade on the wing (going from Lance-at-his-best, Paul George and Evan Turner to... C.J. Miles, Solomon Hill and Rodney Stuckey, whom they nabbed this off-season on cheap $4.2 million, $1.3 million and $1.2 million salaries, respectively). Their man in the middle, the 7'2" Roy Hibbert, serves as the anchor to this attack, and though the 28 year-old two-time All Star has only been averaging 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds this season (plus a typically-awesome 1.8 blocks) during a scant 25.5 minutes a game (and is not even among the top 20 leaders this season in defensive win shares -- weirdly, Pau is #8 on this last, so clearly doesn't measure how often you have your hands up on D), he has, as always, been a beast around the rim, using his verticality to contain opponents to a mere 43.5% finishing percentage around the rim and contesting 56.3% of all shots attempted therein.

Indy currently clocks in as the 9th-best team in defensive rating per 100 possessions, and 10th in Hollinger's defensive efficiency rating. Their offense, though, has been their unexpected saving grace since February -- during that month, it was the 5th-best overall (scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions), with Pacers players connecting on a league-leading 47.5% of their shots. Stuckey has been a revelation for the team, shooting a career-best 45.1% from the field. Over the past ten games, he has basically been on fire, averaging 17.9 points per coming off the bench on a scorching-hot 51.2% shooting percentage from the field, including consecutive 30-point outings. And even that 17.9 number is deceptive, as his first game in the tally was a 2-point, 1-for-6 egg. The 6'5", 205-pound Stuckey is going to be a tough cover at off-guard. Let's hope the lengthy Snell (who, at 6'7", is unfortunately a rail-thin 200 pounds) and the streaking Moore are up for the challenge.

Hibbert has traditionally given Noah trouble, but the Pacers' other front court stalwart, the 34 year-old, the 6'9" West, is clearly on the downside of his career now, averaging a lackluster-for-him 12.6 points and 7.1 boards per game without making nearly the contributions on defense that Hibbert is adding. He's still a smart, hard-nosed player, and the team's locker-room leader and conscience (their Noah equivalent, basically). It's going to be a tough match-up, but our Bulls have an X-factor, and his name is Nikola Mirotic. He will draw West outside of his preferred position around the post, and his athleticism and passing ability will hamper West's effectiveness. If he can get to the line at the clip he's been achieving lately, the Bulls will win their third in a row.

Tip: 6 p.m. CST/7 p.m. EST, CSN-Chicago/ESPN AM-1000