The Indiana Pacers already took the first step of clinching a playoff berth. The second could come Monday night by clinching the Central Division title with a victory over the Chicago Bulls.
Indiana (51-19) was the first team in the East to secure a postseason spot and leads Miami for the best record in the conference by three games with 12 remaining. The Pacers also own a 12-game lead over the Bulls, whom they beat 91-79 on Friday night, and are on the verge of clinching back-to-back division titles for just the second time in franchise history.
With the quick turnaround in facing a division rival for the second time in four days, Pacers coach Frank Vogel thinks his team will regroup and forget about its 82-71 loss at Memphis on Saturday in which Indiana was held to a season low in points.
"When you’re playing in the playoffs, you play a team and you got to make adjustments two days later and that’s what these two games are going to feel like," the coach told the Pacers’ official website. "From that standpoint, it’ll be good for our guys to dial in to adjustments."
Those adjustments need to come on the offensive end after Indiana shot 36.5 percent and had only 14 assists versus the Grizzlies. On Friday, Indiana had 27 assists on its 34 baskets and also balanced scoring as Luis Scola came off the bench to score 19 points – joining five starters in double figures.
"We have to create opportunities for teammates to move the ball," Paul George said after Friday’s defeat. "It’s only so much ball movement you can do when you’re not moving yourself. We got to do a better job of moving with the ball and do a better job of screening. We’re screening poorly right now as a team."
George has struggled with his shot lately, going 9 of 40 (22.5 percent) in his last three games, and he’s had similar issues against Chicago. The two-time All-Star has shot 12 for 46 (26.1 percent) and averaged 14.3 points in three games against the Bulls this season.
George did have a triple-double (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in Friday’s win.
Chicago (39-31) trails Toronto by a half-game for third in the East. The Bulls have alternated wins and losses in their last five, but the last two victories have come at the expense of the woebegone Philadelphia 76ers, who are in the throes of a 24-game losing streak.
D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson provided a spark off the bench Saturday night, combining for 32 points and two key baskets late as the Bulls won 91-81. Joakim Noah had 20 points and eight rebounds for Chicago, but the center is fully aware his team must raise its play against a higher caliber of opponent.
"We could play better than we are playing now," he told the Bulls’ official website. "Indiana was a tough game for us. We wish we could have played better. We’ll have a chance to see them again soon."
Noah had 12 points and 13 rebounds Friday but was 5 for 15 from the field. That type of shooting has been a microcosm of the Bulls’ two losses to Indiana – they shot 35.6 percent in a 97-80 loss Nov. 6 and 36.4 percent Friday.
That’s a stark contrast to Chicago’s 110-94 home win Nov. 16, when it shot 50.6 percent and had seven players in double figures.