Pacers, Bulls both scuffling entering Friday’s matchup

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine and Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner, December 2018
Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine and Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are in very different spots in the Eastern Conference standings, but both clubs have fallen on hard times to start 2020 as they head into Friday night’s matchup at the United Center.

The Pacers are 1-3 to start the new year and have gone just 3-6 since a five-game winning streak got them to a season-high 11 games over .500 in late December. Their normally stingy defense has been leaky, ranking near the bottom of the NBA over the nine-game span and last in January.

In related news, Malcolm Brogdon only played in two of those nine games due to injury. The Pacers’ star offseason acquisition has been dealing with a back injury that has kept him out the last four games. Brogdon and Pacers head coach Nate McMillan are hopeful he’ll be ready to go for Friday.

Indiana should have a chip on its shoulder heading into Friday’s game. The Pacers got punked on their home floor by the Miami Heat on Wednesday, and the game featured a war of words between T.J. Warren and Heat star Jimmy Butler that spilled into postgame.

Warren has been terrific this season and had just scored 36 points in a win over the Charlotte Hornets, but he suffered through a nightmare performance against Miami. Look for him to get back on the right track in Chicago. The forward scored a game-high 26 points in the first matchup between the two teams this season, a 108-95 victory for Indiana.

Although the Pacers have struggled of late, not all is bad. They’re still a healthy 23-15 (19-17-2 against the spread) on the season, which is sixth in the East and five games clear of the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic. Indiana is on pace for nearly 50 wins despite the absence of Victor Oladipo and a few other key players missing time. Domantas Sabonis has been playing at an All-Star level and is just one of the reasons why the Pacers are on track to go over their projected win total.

Speaking of Oladipo, he finally has a date marked for his return. It will come against the Bulls, but it will come on Jan. 29 in Indiana and not Friday:

Getting Oladipo back should give the Pacers a boost on both ends of the floor, at least whenever he finds his rhythm again. That may take some time, but it will be great to see him back out on the court regardless.

That’s not for another three weeks, though, and the Pacers need to take care of business as 4-point favorites against a Bulls squad that has lost five games in a row after a 15-point loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

Chicago had stayed afloat in December thanks to an elite defense and a soft schedule, but that schedule has toughened up and the losses have piled up. The Bulls are a disappointing 13-25 (18-20 ATS) on the season, which puts them four games behind the free-falling Brooklyn Nets for the No. 8 seed in the East, with several other teams between them.

While Chicago’s defense has come back down to earth against improved competition, the offense continues to be a major issue. The Bulls rank 28th in offensive rating after there was a lot of optimism about taking a major step on that end.

Zach LaVine has been good but not great offensively, failing to take a meaningful step forward after a career season in 2018-19. Lauri Markkanen has picked his game up after a dreadful start, but he’s not a consistent difference maker. The rest of the team has only shown flashes, and Otto Porter Jr.’s extended absence has been a killer given his importance to the roster.

Outside of Porter and Chandler Hutchison (who just returned), Chicago had enjoyed good health to the rest of the key rotation players, but a Wendell Carter Jr. ankle injury just ruined that. Carter is expected to miss multiple weeks with a high ankle sprain, which is a tough blow given his importance to the Bulls defensively.

Thaddeus Young got the start in place of Carter against the Pelicans, so look for him to start against his former team on Friday. If Young doesn’t start, rookie Daniel Gafford would likely get the call against the Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt.

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