Though they lost to Detroit in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, the Chicago Bulls thought they were just a step away from overtaking the Pistons as the Central Division's most dominant team.

That hasn't been the case one week into the 2007-08 season.

The unbeaten Pistons (3-0) and the winless Bulls (0-4) meet for the first time since last season's playoffs on Thursday night at the United Center.

Chicago was picked by many to represent the East in the NBA finals this season, but has gotten off to a slow start, especially on the offensive end. The Bulls are 29th in the league in both shooting percentage (37.3) and points per game (87.8).

"We need to stick with it as a team," forward Luol Deng said following Tuesday's 97-91 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. "We're not finishing games and I know the fans are disappointed, but we'll keep battling and get better. Coach (Scott) Skiles' message is to keep battling and get better."

Trade rumors involving unhappy Lakers star Kobe Bryant have been swirling around the Bulls for weeks, though Chicago GM John Paxson has squashed those talks for now, stating late last week "there's not going to be a deal done."

Skiles, for one, isn't overly concerned with his team's early struggles.

"I'm not much of a panic guy," Skiles said. "We'll try to figure out why we're playing the way we are, why when the game is on the line we're not able to step up and make big plays."

One major concern for Chicago has been the play of center Ben Wallace. The 12th-year pro, who has averaged 10.7 rebounds during his career, has only grabbed 4.3 boards per game this season. And though he's never been much of an offensive threat, his 3.8-point average is his lowest in 10 seasons.

If the Bulls are looking for a game to break out of their scoring rut, the Pistons probably aren't the ideal opponent. Detroit has given up just 87.7 points per game to lead the NBA.

The Pistons opened the season on a Florida road trip, blowing out Miami and Orlando by a combined 35 points, and used a 32-point fourth quarter in their home opener to beat Atlanta 92-91 on Sunday.

Detroit's early success is due in part to strong play from its bench.

The reserves scored 45 points in the win over the Magic, led by Flip Murray's 19. Against Atlanta, the subs again played a key role, with Jarvis Hayes and Jason Maxiell sparking the comeback.

"Our bench got us back in the game in the fourth quarter, and that let our starters relax," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "They were able to get their composure, come back in and finish off the game."

Detroit plays six of its next seven on the road, including a five-game western swing. Playing away from The Palace, though, isn't a bad thing for the Pistons, who went 27-14 on the road and 26-15 at home last season to become the first Eastern Conference team since the 2001-02 Charlotte Hornets to post a better record away from home.

Chicago will conclude a three-game homestand Saturday against Toronto before beginning a six-game trip next Thursday.

The Bulls took three of four regular-season meetings between these teams last season. Detroit had won 28 of 32 against Chicago prior to that stretch.


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