(AP) — Following a difficult stretch, the Indiana Pacers are once again making progress toward their first Central Division title in nine seasons.
A season sweep of the Chicago Bulls would certainly help their cause.
The Pacers will try to extend their lead in the division by sending the slumping Bulls to another loss Saturday night at the United Center.
After dropping four of six, Indiana (43-26) has won its past three games by an average of 22.4 points. David West has missed all three of those games with a back injury, but Tyler Hansbrough has started in his place and averaged 18.0 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Hansbrough had a team-best 22 points and 12 boards Friday in a 102-78 rout of Milwaukee.
“I feel like I’m trying to get into the flow of the game, not rushing,” Hansbrough said.
With the win, the Pacers moved six games ahead of second-place Chicago in the Central, and they can widen that gap even further with their first season-series sweep of the Bulls since 2001-02.
“It’s going to be tough to get that fourth win (of the season) against Chicago, but I think the guys are up for the challenge,” coach Frank Vogel said.
Chicago (36-31) has dropped six of eight – beginning with a 97-92 loss at Indiana on March 3 – and is in danger of losing three straight for the first time since November. The Bulls got starting guard Kirk Hinrich and reserve Taj Gibson back from injuries Thursday but fell 99-89 to visiting Portland.
They trailed by as many as 28 before making the score a little more respectable in the fourth quarter. The Bulls are a half-game ahead of Boston for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but their slump has left them only 2 1/2 games in front of the eighth-place Bucks.
“Every game counts, and we need everybody. We’ve got to keep pushing,” Gibson said. “It doesn’t get easy at all if you look at our schedule. We’ve got a lot of tough teams coming up. We’ve got to keep fighting.”
Chicago is still playing without superstar point guard Derrick Rose, who said “nobody knows but God” when he’ll return from last year’s knee surgery. Veteran guard Richard Hamilton hasn’t played since Feb. 26 because of back spasms.
Hamilton was also out the last time the Pacers visited Chicago, an 80-76 loss for the Bulls on Dec. 4. Paul George had 34 points and nine rebounds as Indiana won for the second time in three trips to the United Center following nine straight losses there, including three in the 2011 playoffs.
George is averaging 21.7 points and 10.0 boards in the season series. West has been even more productive against the Bulls in 2012-13 – totaling 60 points on 22-of-36 shooting in the last two matchups – but he is expected to remain out Saturday.
Hansbrough has shot 5 of 25 and averaged 3.6 points in his last five games versus Chicago, all as a reserve.