Both the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers have played the entire season without their star player due to injury. But thanks to phenomenal defense, both teams are still neck-and-neck atop the Eastern Conference's Central Division.
The division-leading Bulls (29-18) will attempt to keep their hold on top of the Central when they visit the Pacers (28-19) Monday night. The game is a makeup for a Dec. 26 contest that was postponed due to a blizzard. Because of the rescheduling, this game will be the first of a dreaded back-to-back-to-back for Indiana, who probably thought it was done with those after last year's crazy lockout-shortened schedule.
The fact that Chicago currently holds a one-game lead over Indiana in the Central is pretty remarkable. The Bulls have been without Derrick Rose all season, and their once-feared "Bench Mob" was overhauled for financial reasons. But thanks to Tom Thibodeau's coaching brilliance and the strong play of All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, among others, the Bulls have managed to stay afloat and even excel without Rose.
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While the offense has naturally struggled at times without Rose, the Bulls' defense is as good as ever. Chicago is both third in the NBA in points allowed per game and defensive efficiency. Since giving up 99 points in an overtime win against the Boston Celtics on Jan. 18, the Bulls have not allowed more than 93 points in a game.
A big reason for the defensive excellence has been the play of Noah, who is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the first-time All-Star is currently battling plantar fasciitis and is unlikely to play on Monday night. Noah's frontcourt mate, Carlos Boozer, is dealing with a hamstring injury, but the power forward is more optimistic that he will play.
Chicago did not have Noah, Boozer or Kirk Hinrich (elbow) in either of their two games over the weekend, but it almost did not matter at all. The Bulls fell just short against the Brooklyn Nets, 93-89, Friday night before blowing out the Atlanta Hawks, 93-76, Saturday at Philips Arena. Deng and Taj Gibson carried a huge load both nights, with Gibson playing every single minute against the Nets and then following that up by playing 45 minutes against the Hawks.
The Bulls have the league's best road record at 14-7, but that mark will be put to the test in a big way against a Pacers team that is 18-3 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana has won 13 straight at home, including a 102-89 beatdown of the Miami Heat on Friday. The Pacers are giving up just 86.9 points per game at home and overall, they are first in defensive efficiency and second in points allowed per game.
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Indiana's defense has helped make up for the loss of Danny Granger, who has not played a single game this year due to a knee injury. The emergence of Paul George as a bona fide star has also helped. George was selected to his first All-Star Game this year and showed his immense talent in an 80-76 win over the Bulls at the United Center Dec. 4. In the victory, the 22-year-old scored a career-high 34 points and hit numerous clutch baskets down the stretch.
Deng and Jimmy Butler, who has taken Chicago by storm the past few weeks, will attempt to slow George. Butler recently filled in for Deng when the All-Star missed time with a hamstring injury, and the Bulls did not miss a beat. In six starts this season, the Marquette product has averaged 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds while also playing hellacious defense on the wing. If for some reason both Noah and Boozer are unable to go, Butler could get the start if the Bulls go small like they did against the Hawks. However, going small against the Pacers' big frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West could pose some problems, so having Boozer available would be a help against that frontline.
Whomever does play, it's safe to assume that this will be quite the low-scoring affair. These two teams have built up a nice little rivalry again over the past few years, so things are sure to get physical. First to 80 wins?
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on Fox Sports Indiana and Comcast Sports Net Chicago. Indiana is favored by five points.