Bulls battle Pacers in critical Central Division showdown

The two top teams in the Central Division square off Monday night when the second-place Indiana Pacers welcome the division-leading Chicago Bulls.

The Pacers are winners of two in a row, both at home. They toppled the Detroit Pistons, 98-79 on Wednesday, then handled the defending champion Miami Heat, 102-89 on Friday.

Monday's game marks the start of a brutal stretch for the Pacers. This game was originally scheduled for Dec. 26, but was postponed until Monday due to severe weather.

The Pacers host the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday and visit the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. It is the only instance this season in the whole league where a team will play three consecutive nights.

But Indiana is on a roll, indicated by its great victory Friday over the Heat. Miami had no answer for David West, who went off for 30 points on 12-for-15 shooting.

Paul George and Lance Stephenson both had 15 points and George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough also netted double figures.

The Pacers shot 56 percent from the field and 41 percent from long range. But Indiana is a defensive team first and held the Heat to their lowest point output since Jan. 4.

"For anybody to say that playing the Miami Heat is just like playing anybody else, it's not that way," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "We want to try and get back at them. They're the defending champs so if we want to go as deep as we want to go in the playoffs, we're going to have to go through them."

The Bulls have won six of their last eight, including a gritty victory Saturday night in Atlanta. After a tough loss in Brooklyn to the Nets on Friday, Chicago trounced the Hawks by 17 to pick up its 14th road win of the season, the most in the Eastern Conference.

An away victory over a good Hawks team is something, but it becomes much more impressive if you consider the circumstances.

All-Star center Joakim Noah, power forward Carlos Boozer, who leads the Eastern Conference in double-doubles, and point guard Kirk Hinrich, all missed both games.

In their absence, Taj Gibson played all 48 minutes against Brooklyn, and Luol Deng, the NBA's leader in minutes played, sat for a whopping four seconds. Against the Hawks, Gibson, Deng and Jimmy Butler all logged 45-plus minutes.

"We just told each other if we play hard and we don't get the win we don't get rewarded," Deng said after the Hawks victory. "So we definitely wanted to finish the whole game, the whole 48 minutes."

The Pacers won the season's first matchup, an 80-76 decision in Chicago on Dec. 4. The Bulls, who have allowed 100 points or more in just three games since Jan. 1, will play the fourth of a six-game road trip.