Pacers have early chance to pull away in Central
Indiana keeps talking about the big picture.
It wants the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the only way the Pacers think they can get there is by winning every night.
So rather than savor the best start in franchise history, the longest winning streak in the franchise's NBA history or the first 9-0 start in the league since 2002-03, the Pacers are going back to work with one goal Saturday - beating Chicago.
''We really started the year with that mindset knowing that Chicago's going to make a run at some point, Miami's going to make a run at some point, and we've just kept that in the back of our minds in terms of winning the games that we feel like we should win,'' power forward David West said after Indiana's latest victory, a 104-77 win over Milwaukee on Friday night.
Indiana has taken advantage of its early chances, too.
In less than three weeks, the Pacers have already built a three-game lead on Miami in the East and hold a four-game edge over the Bulls (4-3) in the Central Division. Another win Saturday would make Indiana the 14th team in league history to go 10-0 and put Indiana on the cusp of matching the franchise's longest winning streak ever, 11 games in 1972-73 when the Pacers were still an ABA powerhouse.
Beat the Bulls, and there's no telling how long this streak could go.
After Chicago, they get a three-day break before heading to the Knicks. They back-to-back games at Boston and at home against Philadelphia next weekend before closing November by hosting Minnesota, traveling to Charlotte and returning home to face Washington. Then they embark on a weeklong West Coast swing that starts against the Clippers.
Some Pacers fans are already eyeing the league record start: 15-0 by the Washington Capitols in 1948-49 and matched by Houston in 1993-94, according to STATS.
Players and coaches, however, are so focused on Saturday's game, they're not even pondering the ramifications of what another win over Chicago would mean - a five-game lead and clinching at least a split in the four-game season series. The only things they care about are getting better and beating whomever shows up on the schedule next.
''We have Chicago (Saturday), might as well just get a little bit a rest,'' center Roy Hibbert said when asked whether he would have liked to have played more minutes Friday night when he fell two blocks short of a triple double. ''That's going to be a big game tomorrow.''
The Bulls could be at a disadvantage Saturday.
Derrick Rose, the NBA's 2011 MVP, missed Friday night's game at Toronto with a right hamstring injury. Team officials said Rose would be re-evaluated before Saturday night.
If Rose can't play, Kirk Hinrich would likely start. Hinrich scored 12 points in Chicago's first road win of the season and played well when Rose sat out last year with a knee injury.
''Kirk's a great player, man,'' Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said after Chicago's 96-80 victory over the Raptors. ''He's underrated. He does a great job running our team, gets us in our sets. He hit some big shots in the third and fourth quarter for us, too.''
Even with Rose, the Pacers still blew out Chicago 97-80 last week - Indiana's most lopsided win until Friday night's blowout.
So far, nobody has played better than the Pacers. They're allowing a league-low 83.7 points per game and are limiting opponents to 38.6 percent shooting - easily the best defensive field goal percentage in the league. Indiana has the highest scoring differential (plus-12.2), the most blocks by a team (81), the league's No. 1 shot blocker in Hibbert (4.8) and is one of only five teams with at least three road wins this season.
The Bulls have been here before.
In March, without Rose, Chicago ended Miami's 27-game winning streak, and the Bulls would love to it again.
''It'll be a great test,'' Hinrich said. ''They're playing as good as anybody in the league right now.''
The Pacers insist there is no time for a break.
While they did start sluggishly against the injury-riddled Bucks after a three-day layoff, the Pacers quickly seized control. The trailed just twice all night, for a total of 64 seconds, and then steadily pulled away.
But as they chase the top seed in the East and what they hope will lead to their first NBA title in June, the Pacers have no plan to let off the gas - or take a break.
For them, it's all about putting the championship pieces together.
''Every game could be the difference between home-court advantage and not having home-court advantage, whether we're playing team with a losing record on the road or a great team like Chicago, it doesn't matter,'' coach Frank Vogel said. ''We're on a mission and we're trying to put ourselves in best possible position come playoff time.''