The last time the Chicago Bulls faced Central Division rival Indiana, they fell apart down the stretch while suffering their 10th straight loss and watching their NBA-worst record drop to 3-20. The Bulls’ season changed dramatically days later and they are one of the league’s hottest teams entering a rematch with the Pacers at home Friday night.
Chicago is 9-2 since forward Nikola Mirotic returned from facial fractures one game after the loss in Indiana after it rallied for a 92-87 victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday. Mirotic had just four points - a season low - but a balanced attack and a dominant defensive stretch run gave the Bulls an 11-10 record against Eastern Conference opponents. “There are gonna be games that are ugly, but it all comes down to stops,” guard Kris Dunn told reporters. “We take pride in our defensive stops. I think we’re very resilient.” The Pacers had a very different late-game experience in their loss 98-94 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, getting outscored 14-4 in the final four-plus minutes. Leading scorer Victor Oladipo missed the contest due to a knee injury and he has already been ruled out for this one.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, FSN Indiana, WGN-TV (Chicago)
ABOUT THE PACERS (19-16): Veteran Lance Stephenson picked up the start in place of Oladipo on Wednesday and responded with 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. “We were right there. I‘m not going to say it was because (Oladipo) was out. We were right there,” Stephenson told reporters. “We made mistakes and a lot of our guys were confident and trying to win the game. We just have to watch film and see what we did wrong and learn from our mistakes.” Indiana attempted just 10 free throws - making eight of them - and it entered Thursday ranked 24th in the NBA with 19.7 attempts at the line per game.
ABOUT THE BULLS (12-22): Mirotic was not a big factor on the scoreboard against the Knicks but he did acknowledge that he and forward Bobby Portis - whose punch in a preseason practice led to Mirotic’s facial fractures - have handled the controversy well, which has had a massive impact on the team’s ability to move on. “I think it was huge because people didn’t know how we were going to act because it was a tough moment obviously for all of us, especially for me,” Mirotic told the media. “But I think [up to now] we’ve handled it well. We’ve tried to be professional. That was really important for the guys because we kind of tried to stick together. And being back was a great [thing] for me, for my teammates.” Dunn shot 6-for-18 on Wednesday but led the Bulls with 17 points and is averaging 14.6 and 7.8 assists in December.
1. Dunn is averaging 17 points on 57.1 percent shooting in two meetings with the Pacers this season.
2. Pacers PG Darren Collison has 26 assists and only two turnovers in 172 minutes over a six-game stretch.
3. Chicago PF Lauri Markkanen is 6-for-22 from the floor over the last two games.
PREDICTION: Bulls 107, Pacers 101