A lot has changed in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division throughout the season. The biggest and most relevant change is Indiana’s usurpation of the division lead from the Bulls.
But all of that could soon be moot, as the Bulls expect to have superstar point guard Derrick Rose back sometime before the playoffs.
Those plans have been plotted for some time as the Bulls continue to fade in the Eastern Conference standings. Rose recently said he still doesn’t know when he will return, saying, “Nobody knows but God,” according to Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com.
On the flip side, the Pacers are flying high, despite losing three of their last six games, including a loss in a hyped matchup versus the Miami Heat.
The Pacers have found themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference, though, thanks to consistent play throughout the season.
Let’s take a look at all of the matchups, story lines and everything else you should know prior to tuning in to this exciting Eastern Conference matchup.
Time: Saturday, March 23rd, 8 p.m. ET
Records: Indiana Pacers (43-26) vs. Chicago Bulls (36-31)
Betting Line: Line not available as of 3/22
Injuries: Danny Granger (knee, out), David West (back, out), Richard Hamilton (back, out), Derrick Rose (knee, out) (as of 3/22; via CBS Sports)
Key Storyline: Is This a Must-Win Game for Chicago?
With Derrick Rose’s status still up in the air, and the team’s slow decline to the seventh seed in the East, there aren’t many things going right for the Bulls right now. The team has won only two of their last eight games.
While a playoff berth is almost a certainty, there is still a chance they could spiral out of control and narrowly miss the postseason.
It isn’t likely, but nothing is impossible in this game.
So while this game isn’t a dire need for Chicago, it would do great things for its confidence.
Key Matchup: Roy Hibbert vs. Joakim Noah
Without David West, Roy Hibbert is going to need to step up his game and do much of the heavy-lifting down low. It’s not going to be easy for him, though, as Joakim Noah presents one of the toughest challenges for Hibbert.
Noah’s size, long frame and relentless motor make him one of the best in the business at grabbing trash on the boards and turning it into points.
These two dueled in the last matchup between the Bulls and Pacers. Noah finished with 14 points, 10 boards and five assists. His opponent countered with 18 points of his own, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Hibbert will have to match Noah’s energy and likely do it while playing extended minutes. It’s not going to be easy, especially on the second consecutive night of action.
Indiana throttled Milwaukee 102-78 in Indianapolis on Friday night. Hibbert got a reprieve in the blowout, only playing 26 minutes. He’s going to need all of the rest he can get for this one.
X-Factors: Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler
Chicago relies heavily on Marco Belinelli (26.1 minutes per game) and Jimmy Butler (22.7 minutes per game) coming off the bench. Both typically play heavy minutes, and Belinelli may be in the starting lineup due to Richard Hamilton’s prolonged absence.
These two have the ability to score by creating shots for themselves, something Bulls have lacked in recent seasons.
Belinelli and Butler both dropped 20 points each during the last matchup between these two on March 3. Both were efficient from behind the three-point line, with Butler connecting on three of his five attempts and Belinelli hitting four of five.
Don’t expect that effective of a shooting performance from Butler regularly, as he is averaging just 29.4 percent from beyond the arc. Belinelli, though, has been lights out from distance. He has connected on 39.6 percent of his three-pointers this season.
Depth Charts (Projected Starters in Bold)
Pacers (via ESPN.com)
PG: George Hill | D.J. Augustin | Ben Hansbrough
SG: Lance Stephenson | Orlando Johnson
SF: Paul George | Danny Granger (out*) | Sam Young | Gerald Green
PF: David West (out*) | Tyler Hansbrough | Jeff Pendergraph
C: Roy Hibbert | Ian Mahinmi | Miles Plumlee
Bulls (via ESPN.com)
PG: Nate Robinson | Kirk Hinrich | Derrick Rose (out*)
SG: Richard Hamilton (out*) | Marco Belinelli | Daequan Cook
SF: Luol Deng | Jimmy Butler
PF: Carlos Boozer | Taj Gibson | Vladimir Radmanovic
C: Joakim Noah | Nazr Mohammed
Injuries will likely keep David West sidelined in this one. The Pacers will have to find a way to replicate his 31-point performance during their March 3 win over the Bulls. Spreading the ball around more and getting more production from other players will be tough due to the strong low-post defense of the Bulls.
Chicago is going to be playing with a lot of emotion after being surpassed by the Pacers in the Central Dvision and then beat in Indiana in their last matchup. The playoffs are virtually a lock for both teams, but this would be a huge win for the home team as they attempt to build confidence for a playoff run.
With West out, the Bulls will squeak out a narrow win thanks to strong performances by Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
Chicago Bulls 94, Indiana Pacers 89