Bulls-Pacers Preview

Chicago and Indiana haven’t met since the Bulls handed the Pacers their first loss in mid-November.

These Central Division rivals will quickly get reacquainted over the next few days.

The Bulls try to avoid a fourth consecutive road loss to the Pacers, who look to inch closer to clinching the division in the first of two upcoming showdowns Friday night.

Indiana (50-18) opened a franchise-best 9-0 before falling 110-94 at Chicago on Nov. 16. These teams also played 10 days earlier in Indianapolis, with the Pacers easily winning 97-80.

Indiana has taken four of six from Chicago, including three straight home matchups by an average of 10.7 points. Despite that success, coach Frank Vogel knows the Bulls present a difficult challenge.

"I think it’s (coach) Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah. I think those two guys contribute enormously to winning basketball," Vogel, whose team visits Chicago on Monday, told the Pacers’ official website. "With the way they’re coached and the way they’re led with the passion of Noah, I think that’s what it’s about."

The Pacers followed a season-worst four-game losing streak with four straight wins before Wednesday’s 92-86 defeat at New York. Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert combined for 41 points, but Paul George shot 4 of 17 and scored 17.

"The right perspective is that we’re playing pretty well, we have a really good team," Vogel said. "Nobody needs to panic and go nuts. Stay the course, keep doing what we’re doing. We’re winning a lot more than we’re losing and just try to get better everyday. Really it’s about building habits that are going to help us win playoff games. That’s the biggest thing that we’re trying to get accomplished right now."

Sitting 12 games ahead of the Bulls (38-30), the Pacers’ magic number to win the division is three. Indiana, which has already secured a playoff berth, is three games ahead of Miami for the Eastern Conference’s best record.

"With what we have going on, we would love to maximize on the opportunities and increase that lead but in the bigger scheme (of things), we’re in a good position now," George said. "We’ve got to get back to playing some good basketball, though, because we have some tough games on our schedule that can come down to moving us to second or staying in first."

Chicago is seeking a fourth victory in five games after winning 102-94 at Philadelphia on Wednesday to extend the 76ers’ franchise-record losing streak to 22.

"We had to be ready to play a whole game. We had to be ready to fight," Thibodeau told the Bulls’ official website. "The thing to me is to find a way to win."

Former Pacers guard D.J. Augustin led six Bulls in double figures with 20 points, and fellow reserve Taj Gibson added 19 and 13 rebounds. Chicago shot 8 of 15 from 3-point range and held a 52-38 edge on the glass.

Noah is averaging 14.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.6 blocks while shooting 53.7 percent over the last eight games. He scored a combined eight points while going 1 of 8 from the field against the Pacers in November.

Indiana is giving up an NBA-low 92.2 points per game, just ahead of Chicago’s mark of 92.3. The Bulls are averaging 93.4 points to rank last in the league.