Winners of eight straight games and alone atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Chicago Bulls are now facing the hype they've managed to avoid all year -- and it's starting to get quite loud. Adding to the cacophony today is Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's piece on the MVP partnership of Tom Thibodeauand SI's Zach Lowe's take on the Bulls as legitimate title contenders.
For many reasons, Chicago has avoided the hype machine up to this point. Early injuries, Rose's humility and a cache of soap opera stories surrounding teams such as the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics have allowed the Bulls to focus on coach Tom Thibodeau's insular team concept. With the Bulls a win away from their first 50-win season since 1997-98, however, the brightening spotlight represents the team's latest, and perhaps greatest, challenge.
Indeed, when the Bulls tip off against the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse tonight, expectations will be at an all-time high. The Pacers have undergone significant changes this season, as coach Jim O'Brien was fired after a late January loss to the Bulls. Interim coach Frank Vogel led the Pacers to early success, and though they have since come back to earth, Indiana could turn out to be the Bulls' first round playoff opponent.
As of this writing, Carlos Boozer's status is still up in the air. But no matter whether the Booz is in or not, Chicago will have its hands full against a team with a deep rotation and much-improved play of late.
Pacers To Watch For
Forward Tyler Hansbrough is averaging 25.2 points over his last five games, playing the best basketball of his young career. Rookie Paul George looks to have claimed the starting shooting guard spot and has rewarded Vogel's decision with a precocious stretch of play. Danny Granger remains the Pacers most dangerous option, averaging 22 points over his last three games. The Granger-Luol Deng match-up will be one of the keys to the game.
Bulls To Watch For
Derrick Rose has played extremely well against the Pacers this season, averaging 22 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8 assists. Boozer shredded the Indiana front line this year and, if he cannot go for the fifth straight contest, the Bulls will definitely miss his scoring in the paint. Luol Deng will no doubt be plenty busy on the defensive end against Granger, but Chicago will need his scoring as well if Boozer sits.
As Indiana employs a 10-man rotation, the Bulls excellent second unit will face a substantial challenge. It won't garner many headlines, but whichever team wins the battle of the benches could very well win this game.
The Bulls go for the four-game season sweep against the Pacers tonight at 6:00 CDT. Comcast Sports Net has the call.
Follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks