The Bulls return home looking to get back on track after falling Wednesday in Minnesota, 115-108. The Indiana Pacers come to town shooting to sweep the season series between the longtime Central Division rivals for the second year in row.
Indy hasn't swept the Bulls in consecutive seasons since the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. However, they've won the last eight regular season meetings and 11 of 12, overall. The last time the Bulls beat the Pacers was at the United Center on December 29, 2017.
Before tonight, the Bulls and Pacers hooked up for the third time this season in late January down in Indy. The game went into overtime, with Indiana eventually pulling away for a 115-106 win. Pacers forward TJ Warren (25) led all scorers while Domantas Sabonis (15 pts/11 rbs) posted a double-double. As for Chicago, Chandler Hutchison came off the bench to post a team-best 21 points.
After winning only once in the month February, Chicago started March with a roar, defeating the Dallas Mavericks, 109-107, Monday at the UC without the team's leading scorer, Zach LaVine, who was forced to sit out with a quad injury. Unfortunately, Chicago couldn't capitalize on Monday's momentum in Minnesota the next time out.
The Bulls come into tonight having lost 11 of their last 13 and stand a disappointing 21-41. The Pacers, on the other hand, are well positioned to make the playoffs once again as they're tied for the 5th in the East, three games behind Miami with a record of 37-25. And although they're coming off a 19-point drubbing in Milwaukee the other night, they've won four of their last five.
LaVine is out again tonight, so Indiana will likely key in on stopping Lauri Markkanen and hot shooting rookie Coby White. Markkanen returned to the hardwood after a six-week absence due to a hip injury against Minnesota. The 22-year forward looked healthy in tallying 13 points and four rebounds in limited action.
As for White, the Bulls rookie out of North Carolina has really come into his own, scoring at least 19 points in six consecutive games — all off the bench. Against the Timberwolves he put up 26 points, the eighth time this season he's eclipsed the 25-point mark as a reserve. Only OKC's Dennis Schroder (11) and LA Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (10) have accomplished what White has done more often.
For Indiana, tonight's contest marks the fourth game of a five-game road trip. TJ Warren has been playing well, going for 20 or more points in two of their last three games. The veteran small forward is averaging an impressive 18.7 points per game on 53% shooting. Sabonis has also turned a lot of heads, as the 6'11 power forward has collected 48 double-doubles, and averages 18.2 points and 12.4 rebounds.
Indy's starting backcourt situation bears watching as regular starters Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo are questionable. Brogdon had to leave after only 11 minutes against the Bucks with a hip issue, while Oladipo has sat out the last two games because of swelling and soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He took part in team warmups before the Milwaukee game, but ended up sitting as a precaution.
Oladipo, who last year was an All-Star before getting hurt, has only been able to play 10 times this season and averaging 12 points while shooting a rather pedestrian 36.8% from the floor.
For Chicago to get on track they'll need to mentally shake off Wednesday's disappointment and muster up a hardnosed, blue collar effort at both ends of the floor. Every single time they take the floor it's vital the Bulls play selflessly, freely sharing the ball, moving it constantly from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while searching for open looks and driving paths to the basket. All five players must continually be involved in what's going on. For Chicago's offense to flow everyone must play a role.
Defensively, the Bulls must quickly establish a workmanlike mentality and keep that mindset throughout the night. They currently rank first in forcing turnovers (18.0) and scoring off turnovers (21.1). To be successful Chicago needs to trust each other and do a far better job of communicating on the floor. They must pressure the ball up and down the floor, and quickly recognize opportunities to jump passing lanes and double-team shooters along the 3-point arc and in the corners.
Collectively, the Bulls must lay everything on the line, going hard after every loose ball and fighting for control of the boards.