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INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana is off to the perfect start.
After spending the offseason and preseason talking openly about challenging Miami for the Eastern Conference title, the Pacers have backed their words with results. They've been unbeatable.
On Wednesday, against their fiercest Central Division rival, Indiana spent 3½ quarters trading jabs with Derrick Rose and the Bulls before using a 12-2 fourth-quarter run to break open the game and eventually pull away for a 97-80 victory — their second in two nights, their most lopsided this season and their fifth straight to remain the NBA's last unbeaten team.
"We're deep and we have a lot of guys who contribute and make plays," forward David West said after finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds, both season-highs. "That's what we're going to need as the year wears on."
So far, there's been little to quibble with.
At 5-0, the Pacers are off to their best start since 1971-72 when they were an ABA contender. They can match the franchise's best start ever with a win Friday night at home against Toronto.
Paul George came into the game ranked No. 2 in the league in scoring and finished with 21 points and six rebounds. West and Roy Hibbert have provided the inside muscle. Lance Stephenson has been surprisingly strong through the first five games, and the scariest part is that the Pacers aren't even at full strength yet. Starting point guard George Hill missed his third straight game with a sore left hip and former All-Star Danny Granger hasn't played at all because of a strained left calf.
But even without two key contributors, Indiana has looked incredibly strong, thanks in large part to a revamped bench that came up big again Wednesday night.
Newcomers Luis Scola and Donald Sloan teamed up with Stephenson to score 22 of Indiana's 34 fourth-quarter points, including all of the points in the decisive 12-2 spurt. That's just how Larry Bird drew it up. Stephenson finished with 15 points, 12 in the fourth-quarter. Sloan had nine and Scola had 12.
"It's a great win, big for us," Scola said. "The fact that we have started 5-0, we have created a little window between us and the other playoff contenders."
The key will be holding that lead.
Indiana is in the midst of a five-games-in-seven-days stretch that has already taken them to Detroit before coming home for games with the Bulls and Raptors. On Saturday, they head to Brooklyn, then come home Monday to face Memphis.
Chicago, meanwhile, is already fighting an uphill battle. The Bulls (1-3) are now 3½ games behind in the standings and down a game in the crucial head-to-head series between the last two Central Division champs.
Rose and Luol Deng each scored 17 points Wednesday, but Rose's shooting woes continued. He was 5 of 9 from the floor in the first half and only 1 of 6 in the second half to finish 6 of 15 — just slightly better than the shooting percentage he brought into the game (28.8). Kirk Hinrich scored 12 points and was the only other Chicago player to reach double figures.
"We got beat in every facet of the game, the rebounding, the defensive transition, turned it over," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We have to play 48 minutes with a good team."
Especially in a game that looked more like a title fight than a basketball game.
Bodies crashed hard to the court all night, and the game got progressively more physical with each quarter.
Pacers backup center Ian Mahinmi left late in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle and did not return. Hinrich was called for a flagrant foul in the fourth. There was a resounding thud inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, too, when Chicago center Joakim Noah hit the court while trying to protect his own basket late in the fourth.
Perhaps that's why Rose spent the first half of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Eventually, though, Scola, Sloan and Stephenson gave Indiana the upper hand.
Sloan tied the score at 67 with a 17-foot jumper, Stephenson gave Indiana the lead with a 3, Scola followed that with consecutive baskets and Stephenson closed the run with another 3 to make it 77-69 with 5:16 to go.
Chicago never seriously challenged again as the Pacers pulled away.
"We just play hard. We feel like that we going to bring it every night on the defensive end, offensive end and we going to find a way to get that 'W,'" Stephenson said. "And we did that tonight."
NOTES: Rose opened the game with his best offensive half of the season, going 5 of 9 from the field with 12 points and one 3 in the first two quarters. ... The Bulls fell to 6-22 all-time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. ... Chicago's Carlos Boozer came into the game shooting an NBA-best 65.9 percent from the field and averaging 22.3 points but went just 3 of 10 with six points.