The Bulls and the Indiana Pacers get together for a third time later this evening at the United Center. Indy won the first two by a combined eight points, as the Bulls were able to keep things close in both contests but couldn't find a way to win in the end.
The Pacers escaped their earlier UC visit on November 2nd with an exciting come-from-behind 107-105 victory thanks to Victor Oladipo's 25 points and 14 rebounds. Antonio Blakeney came off the Chicago bench to lead the Bulls with a career-high 22 points.
The next time the two longtime Central Division rivals saw each other occurred a month later (December 4th) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Darren Collison's 23 points and Myles Turner's 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks paced Indy's attack in Jim Boylen's Chicago head coaching debut. The Bulls connected on 11 3-pointers to Indiana's six that night, but the Pacers more than made up the difference at the charity stripe by going 20-of-24 from the line compared to 5-of-5 for Chicago. Lauri Markkanen led the Bulls with 21 points, and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. notched a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds, yet Chicago ultimately lost, 96-90.
The Pacers have been riding a wave of momentum of late having won five in a row, 12 of 14 and 17 of 23 overall, springing them to the East's third-best record of 25-12. Unfortunately the Bulls have been traveling the other way most of the year, having endured five different losing streaks of at least three games. If they're unable to come out on top tonight, it'll be six.
Indy's success is all the more notable for the fact the Oladipo, who leads them in scoring (19.6), has been forced to sit out 11 games with an array of nagging injuries. Where the Pacers have created success is by sharing the wealth, as six Hoosiers average double figures in scoring, including top reserves Domantas Sabonis (14.6 points, 9.5 rebounds) and Tyreke Evans (10.5 points).
Under Boylen's direction Chicago's offensive scheme has focused on slowing things down, grinding the shot-clock to just under five seconds before shooting in order to force opponents to burn energy on defense. For this plan to work the Bulls have to get all five players involved in the action. They cannot allow their attack to turn into a series of one-on-one contests. The ball must jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the defense to scramble and/or free up driving lanes to hoop as well as uncover shooters hanging around the arc for uncontested jumpers.
Chicago must also take care of the ball and avoid chancy passes that can be picked-off and inadvertently ignite Indiana's attack in allowing them speed up the pace of the game.
To that end another important facet of tonight's contest will be Chicago's ability to limit Indiana's efficiency on the boards in posting second-chance points. With Turner and Sabonis, as well as veteran Thaddeus Young, the Pacers are a sturdy low post squad capable of putting points on the board via put-backs.
Lastly, the Bulls need to stoutly defend the 3-point arc as Indiana currently ranks 5th in the league in connecting from behind the bend. Oladipo (.350% 3FG), fellow starter Bojan Bogdanovic (16.2 points, .501 FG%, .457% 3FG), Evans (.368% 3FG) and Collison (.374% 3FG) have each made an impact from downtown this season. Chicago's team defense has to stay on its toes and keep its head up and be willing to run those shooters off the line as often as need be to give themselves a legitimate shot of coming out on top.