INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana suddenly has a shooting touch to go with its tough defense.
The combination is just too much.
David West scored 29 points Monday night and All-Star Paul George finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, leading the Pacers past the Bulls, 111-101, for a 14th consecutive home win and into a tie with the Bulls for the Central Division lead.
“We’re just playing together; every game I feel like we’re playing sharper,” West said. “We still need to pick it up defensively, we’re slipping in that regard, but in terms of the offense and how we’re moving the ball and what we’re looking for, it’s just game-by-game improvement.”
Three nights after shooting a season-high 55.7 percent in a relatively easy win over defending NBA champion Miami, Indiana shot 52.7 percent against a Bulls defense that is ranked No. 2 in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage. The only team ahead of the Bulls is the Pacers, and Indiana never trailed in the second half Monday.
Indiana has topped the 100-point mark four times in the past five games after doing that only seven times in the first 43. It was the Pacers’ highest point total in a non-overtime game all season, and the timing couldn’t have been better as they head into a three-games-in-three-night swing. They are the only NBA team to deal with that this season.
Now the Pacers will take a three-game winning streak into tonight’s home game against Atlanta as they try to win a 15th consecutive home game for the first time since 1999-2000 when they won 25 in a row. On Wednesday, they visit Philadelphia.
Indiana’s recent surge has it tied for the division lead with the Bulls (29-19) and behind only Miami (30-14) and New York (31-15) in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Over the past month, the Pacers have beaten Miami twice and New York and the Bulls once each, going 4-0 mark against the East’s three other top teams since Jan. 8 and they now have a 2-0 series lead over the Bulls, the league’s best road team.
“We played the No. 1 team in Miami and New York and Chicago is right there, and this is a big win for us, definitely playing against a division team,” George Hill said. “So I’m happy with our ballclub, we played a great game.”
The Bulls didn’t look like themselves, though.
Starting guards Derrick Rose (left knee) and Kirk Hinrich (right elbow) and starting center Joakim Noah (right foot) all sat out again with injuries, and they had another scare late in the first quarter when Marco Belinelli crashed to the floor clutching his right ankle. He returned later and finished with a season-high 24 points. Nate Robinson finished with 19 points, nine assists and five rebounds, and Carlos Boozer had 10 points and five rebounds as he returned from a right hamstring injury.
All of those players, other than Belinelli and Robinson, missed Saturday’s 93-76 victory at Atlanta.
“I feel like we’re short-handed right now, but we’re competing hard and that’s all you can ask for and I feel like our best basketball is yet to come,” Noah said. “We’ve just got to keep fighting and I think we’ll be all right.”
Those expecting a defensive slugfest were in for a surprise.
Indiana started the game fast, making its first six shots to take a 13-2 lead, and finished the first half nearly as fast, using a 12-6 run to break a 48-48 tie to make it 60-54 at the half. The Pacers shot 66.7 percent from the field in the half.
The Bulls had seven players in double figures and continually challenged Indiana, but never had control and couldn’t even forge a tie over the final 27½ minutes.
Robinson opened the second half with a 3-pointer and a 20-foot jumper to close the deficit to 60-59, but a few minutes later, Indiana seized control with two quick scoring flurries.
The first came when George hit a 3-foot jumper, Lance Stephenson then completed a three-point play and Hill added a four-point play to make it 73-63 with 7:35 left in the third. The Bulls answered with four straight points, and Indiana came right back with six straight to take a 79-67 lead.
“We started the game in a big hole and we had to get out of that hole,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Now you’re scrambling and trying to give yourself a chance. I thought we were in position with five minutes to go.”
The Bulls rallied again in the fourth, using an 8-0 run to close to 90-84, and it got as close as four three times.
Indiana finally sealed it with a 3 from George and two free throws from West with 1:05 to play.
“I’m proud of the way we’re growing on the offensive end,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Still a few too many turnovers, but we’ve made a commitment to the extra pass. When the ball is moving, we’re too many weapons to be as poorly efficient as we have been.”
Notes: It was Indiana’s first regular-season home win over the Bulls since March 18, 2011. ... The Bulls are 6-20 all-time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. ... Bulls guard Marquis Teague finished with two points in his first pro appearance in his hometown. ... The Bulls lost for only the third time in nine games.