The playoffs may be starting early for the Chicago Bulls, as they prepare to take on the Indiana Pacers Wednesday night.
Last week's loss to the Miami Heat opened the door for Miami to sneak in and steal the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, something the Bulls have held almost the entire regular season. There's nothing like a must-win situation between division rivals this late in the season, and that's what Chicago's final two regular-season games have turned into.
Home-court advantage is that important in the East.
In addition to wrapping up home court, the Bulls need to start clicking on all cylinders as they are only 6-4 in their last 10 games. With two games remaining, the Bulls not only must stay healthy but must start to resemble the team that has the NBA's best record.
While the Bulls still have playoff seeding to compete for, the Pacers are locked into the No. 3 seed in the East, but this game could still have some meaning for them.
A win against the Bulls means the Pacers could potentially be the team that knocks Chicago down to the No. 2 seed. That could set up a second-round matchup between the division rivals, a year after the Bulls knocked Indiana out of the postseason.
It's a game not only for confidence for Indiana, but one to make a statement as well. A win here shows that the Pacers are ready to compete with the likes of Chicago in a seven-game series and also could put a small amount of doubt in the mind of the Bulls.
So far, the teams have split their two meetings on the season. Here's a look at everything you need to know about this important late-season battle.
When: Wednesday, April 25 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.
Watch: Comcast Sports Chicago
Live Stream: NBA League Pass
Betting Line: Not available until day of game
Bulls Key Injuries (Per CBS Sports)
No Key Injuries
Pacers Key Injuries (Per CBS Sports)
No Key Injuries
What They're Saying
After 64 regular-season games, teams aren't supposed to be figuring out their offense at this point of the season. Given all the injuries the Bulls have suffered this year, that's exactly what Chicago is trying to do with only two regular-season games remaining.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Bulls have won 28 consecutive games when scoring 100 points or more—the longest streak in the league (h/t ESPN's Nick Friedell). The main problem for them, though, is that they've only scored 100 twice this month and are only averaging 91 points per game in April.
Having the reigning league MVP healthy should help and Derrick Rose doesn't seemed very worried, as he told Friedell:
"We’re just missing shots," he said after Saturday night's win. "I think that we’re over-passing in certain situations where we should shoot the ball. We’re so unselfish that we’ll try to make the pass and teams are getting a hand on it and we just got to get a little bit selfish when we get to the lane. Where most of our turnovers are happening in the lane [is] where we should shoot the ball. And our bigs are looking to rebound, but we try and thread the needle and that’s creating turnovers."
Most Important Player to Watch: Richard Hamilton
The Bulls starters have played only a handful of games together this season. This game gives head coach Tom Thibodeau a chance to look at the bigger picture and how his starting five will gel together.
Hamilton was brought in so he could upgrade the shooting guard spot and take some scoring pressure off Rose, but the two haven't had much time to play together on the season. The former UConn product has only played in 26 games this season and is averaging only 12.0 points per game on the season.
But he's scored 22 points in two of his past three games and if Hamilton can provide that type of scoring lift, the Bulls offense will be ready as the playoffs begin.
Key Matchup: Roy Hibbert vs. Joakim Noah
Hibbert can be a huge part of the Indiana offense and taking him out of the game makes Indiana easier to cover on the perimeter. If Hibbert is going well and the Bulls are forced to double him often, he's a good enough passer out of the post to find open shooters.
In an Indiana win against the Bulls in early January, Hibbert was a big factor, scoring 20 points. In a Chicago win in March, Noah and Company held Hibbert to a mere two points on 1-of-6 shooting.
If the Bulls can effectively limit Hibbert's production, they can take a huge step to locking up home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Bulls 101, Pacers 96