If the Chicago Bulls have any thoughts about winning the Central Division, Saturday night's home game against the Indiana Pacers is a must.
The Bulls trail Indiana by six games in the Central. Chicago is safely in the playoff picture now, but there is positioning in question. The Bulls own the sixth spot, but are only a half-game ahead of the Boston Celtics. Conversely, Chicago is just a game behind the Atlanta Hawks for fifth.
The Pacers are in the playoffs, having already clinched their spot. They have no chance of catching the historically great Miami Heat, but Indy is just a game ahead of the New York Knicks for second in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers are playing well and collected their third straight victory on Friday night when they demolished Central Division rivals, the Milwaukee Bucks.
At home, the Pacers jumped all over the Bucks in the third quarter, winning the frame, 28-11. That proved to be enough separation and Indiana won going away, 102-78.
"Heck of a win for our guys, led by a dominant defensive third quarter where we held them to about five points in the quarter until the final minute I think," said head coach Frank Vogel.
David West missed his third straight game with a back injury and his availability for Saturday night is unknown, although he's not expected to play.
Tyler Hansbrough started in West's place and amassed 22 points and 12 rebounds. He is averaging 18.0 ppg during the time West has been sidelined.
"Maybe because he's playing with the starters, I'm not totally sure," Vogel said of Hansbrough's recent play. "Some guys are just more comfortable starting and they get in a better rhythm of the game. Whatever it is, I'm glad it's working out for Tyler and for us."
Paul George (20), Roy Hibbert (11), D.J. Augustin (10), Jeff Pendergraph (10) and Ian Mahinmi (10) all scored in double figures.
The Bulls just aren't playing good basketball right now. They've lost two in a row, four of five and six of eight. The two most recent losses were at home to the Denver Nuggets, who are on fire right now, and the Portland Trail Blazers, who are not.
Against Portland on Thursday, the Bulls fell behind by 15 at the half, then got clobbered again in the third quarter, 28-16. It all added up to a 99-89 loss.
"It's disappointing, it's really disappointing," Joakim Noah said. "It's tough. We're not playing great right now, disappointing. It's the final stretch and we're not getting it done. We've got to find a way."
Noah led the Bulls with 18 points and Carlos Boozer had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Taj Gibson, who, along with Kirk Hinrich, returned after long stints away with injury, scored 14 off the bench and Jimmy Butler chipped in 12 in a reserve role.
The Pacers have won the first three this season against the Bulls. Indiana is 2-8 in its last 10 in Chicago, but one of those victories came this season.