Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls have an advantage that doesn't get much attention. Almost every opponent gets the Bulls' best game -- coach Tom Thibodeau demands it. But the Bulls don't get every opponent's best game. It's hard to get up for the Bulls without Derrick Rose.
The Indiana Pacers under coach Frank Vogel are one of the exceptions. Maybe the biggest exception. In their quest to become the most credible challenger to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers see the Bulls as the team to beat -- whether Rose is playing or not.
That above all else was the impetus behind the Pacers' 111-101 victory over the Bulls on Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that moved the Pacers (29-19) ahead of the Bulls (29-19) for the No. 3 seed in the East. The Pacers, who came in ranked 29th in the NBA in scoring (92.0 points per game), hit their first six shots and nine of their first 10 to take a 13-2 lead and ended up with 111. The Bulls have their bad nights. But when they allow 111 points to a team averaging 92, it's more than just a bad night.
''[The Bulls] are division champs,'' said Pacers forward David West, who scored 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting against the Bulls on Monday night. ''We're chasing them, so we just approached this game know how well they are coached and how well they play. They're just a tough team and we knew we'd have to bring our best effort.''
In West and 6-8 guard Paul George, the Pacers have two players who could give the Bullls trouble even when they're on their game defensively. George is averaging 17.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game and made the all-star team this season.
But an even more important factor the Pacers have going for them against the Bulls is that they respect them like no other team in the league does.
''They play the right way and they share the ball,'' Vogel said.
Vogel seems to be the closest thing to Thibodeau in the NBA next to Thibodeau. He seems to have the Thibodeau knack for getting his players to embrace his approach -- from playing defense to respecting the Bulls with or without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich.
''We knew what they were capable of regardless of who was out, who was playing or who was on their reserve list,'' George said. ''We know [they're] coming to challenge us. We did a great job of dialing in on all their guys.''
They weren't kidding. The Pacers were dialed in on every Bull, from Luol Deng (13 points on 4-of-18 shooting) to Jimmy Butler (10 points on 3-of-8 shooting). The only Bulls player who shot better than 50 percent from the field on Monday night was Marco Belinelli, who suffered a sprained ankle in the first half but returned after getting treatment in the locker room and scored 13 of his team-high 24 points in the fourth quarter.
The 6-9, 250-pound West, who is averaging 17.3 points per game after averaging 12.8 points per game last season when he was coming off ACL surgery, isn't as talented as Danny Granger, the Pacers' all-star forward who is about to return from a knee injury that has kept him out all season. But he brings an element to the Pacers that Granger does not, one that becomes a bigger factor in the playoffs.
''He's mentally tough, physically tough. That's the way he's been since he's come in the league,'' Thibodeau said. ''Great leader. He gives them a lot of toughness. Big shot maker. The guy's had a terrific career. You can see he's back here he guys had a terrific career. You can see he's back to where he was before.''
The Bulls didn't lose Monday night because they were lax. ''It comes down to plays made at the end,'' said Carlos Boozer, who returned to the starting lineup after missing three games and finished with 10 points on 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting with five rebounds. ''We had a chance to win the game towards the end but things didn't go our way.''
''We're disappointed with the way we finished. But it was still a winnable game,'' Thibodeau said. ''We got a tough whistle [on an out-of-bounds call with the Pacers leading 98-94 with 1:35 left]. That happens. That's part of it. We have to have the mental toughness to get through that. We can't allow our frustration to lead us into next executing or recklessly fouling. Well learne from it.''
What they should have learned is that they're going to have to reach a new level to beat the Pacers. When the Bulls are better, the Pacers look capable or raising their game as well. Do the Bulls understand that?
''It's a rivalry. We understand that,'' Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. ''Every time we step on the court, these two teams have something to prove. They're trying to win the division. We're trying to win the division. We're trying to get better, help our teams move forward. And right now they got two wins on us, feeling good. But we're looking forward to playing them again late.''
Implicit in that statement is that Derrick Rose figures to be on the court then. The Bulls probably know better than to lean on that as the counter to the challenge presented by a good team that, like them, is only getting better.