(AP) — The Chicago Bulls might be running away with the Central Division thanks to a nearly spotless home record, but their recent play on the road has left plenty of room for improvement.
A night before one of the league’s top teams visits the United Center, the Bulls try to avoid a fourth straight road loss to a sub-.500 opponent Friday night against an Indiana Pacers team looking for a season-high third consecutive win.
Chicago (25-13) owns an eight-game lead over second-place Indiana (16-20) in the Central largely thanks to a 17-3 home record, which includes a 92-73 rout of the Danny Granger-less Pacers on Dec. 13.
The Bulls open a stretch of seven of eight at the United Center against Southeast-leading Miami on Saturday, but first they’ll get a chance to solve their road issues. Chicago’s 96-91 loss at Charlotte on Wednesday was its third straight away from home to opponents that are a combined 32 games below .500.
The Bulls have allowed an average of 82.4 points during a seven-game home winning streak but have surrendered at least 96 in each of their last three road games. They forced a season-low seven turnovers against the Bobcats.
Another problem Wednesday was their slow start, getting outscored 36-22 in the opening 12 minutes. Chicago has allowed an average of 27.1 first-quarter points in January – 3.9 more than the season’s first two months.
“We can’t continue that pattern. We have to play better from the start,” Carlos Boozer said. “We can’t be one of those teams that has slow starts and rely on ourselves to come back. It’s something we have to clean up, and clean up fast before we get to Indiana.”
The Bulls didn’t have trouble getting started last month against the Pacers. Boozer had eight points and Luol Deng seven in the first seven minutes as Chicago started the game on a 25-8 run.
Having a healthy Granger – who missed that game with a sprained ankle – should help Indiana make sure Chicago doesn’t run away Friday. Granger has averaged 28.0 points in his last five games against the Bulls.
Three Pacers scored at least 20 points in a 111-103 win at Philadelphia on Tuesday – Granger led the way with 27 – and Indiana got another balanced effort Wednesday against Dallas. Brandon Rush had a game-high 20 while Granger and Darren Collison each scored 17, but it was rookie Paul George’s 16-point effort that was the talk of a 102-89 win.
George, who hit 4 of 6 from 3-point range, has reached double figures in three of six games since coach Jim O’Brien stuck him back in the rotation. He’d played in only three of the Pacers’ previous 24 contests.
“He can shoot it,” O’Brien said. “He is going to be a terrific basketball player.”
Indiana has won consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 28-30. It hasn’t won three straight since a four-game run April 4-10.
“They’re two quality back-to-back wins for our team,” O’Brien said. “I’m very proud of the intensity and the focus our guys put forth the past two games.”
The Pacers should feel good about their chances Friday if Collison can continue his hot streak. He’s averaged 17.2 points in his last six games, and Indiana is 10-7 when he scores 14 or more. Collison, however, has averaged just 6.0 in three games versus Chicago.
Derrick Rose, meanwhile, has been struggling in road games, shooting 40.2 percent – 3 for 25 from 3-point range – and averaging 5.0 turnovers over the last seven.