Of the half-dozen division races, none is closer than in the Central, where the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls have been tighter than lockjaw for weeks now.
The Central Division chase may be the most intriguing as well. I can’t recall the last time two teams have been this close in style, substance, record and proximity at the same time.
According to our friends at Hoopdata.com, here’s how the Pacers and the Bulls compare in its so-called Four Factors that define efficiency:
Effective Field Goal Percentage, own: Pacers (.4695), 24th overall; Bulls (.4683), 26th.
Effective Field Goal Percentage, opponents: Pacers (.4519), first; Bulls (.4594), second.
Effective Free Throw Rate, own: Bulls (27.7), 12th; Pacers (26.6), 15th.
Effective Free Throw Rate, opponents: (Pacers (25.0), seventh; Bulls (26.7), 13th.
Turnover Rate, own: Bulls (13.84), 13th; Pacers (14.45), 26th.
Turnover Rate, opponents: Bulls (13.52), 21st; Pacers (12.79), 26th.
Offensive Rebound Rate, own: Pacers (.3035), fourth; Bulls (.3007), sixth.
Offensive Rebound Rate, opponents: Pacers (.2547), fifth; Bulls (.2720), 19th.
Yet as alike as the Pacers and the Bulls may be, the general perception of them couldn’t be more different. The consensus seems to be that, when Derrick Rose returns to the lineup in a two or two or three — any target date is for head coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office to know and the rest of us to find out — the Bulls may post the biggest challenge to the Miami Heat come playoff time.
As for the Pacers, they’re a nice, little team that’s well-coached and comes to play every game. They also lack the one quality that every championship-caliber team requires — a Rose-like talent that can take games by the throat when the stakes are highest.
To say the Pacers are under the radar in Chicago is an understatement. A speck of lint on the screen is more like it. Like almost everyone else, the Bulls respect their blue-collar ways and emphasis on defense, but in the Big Picture, they’re considered to be no more than a nuisance.
Never mind that the Pacers have more than held their own without Danny Granger, a potential difference-maker in his own right.
Then again, the Bulls have more urgent issues at the moment. Luol Deng (right hamstring) and Joakim Noah (right foot) have started to feel the brunt of heavy minutes. Carlos Boozer (right hamstring) and Kirk Hinrich (right elbow) aren’t spring chickens any more. The result has been patchwork line-ups that have struggled at times, most notably in a 128-96 clunker against the Nuggets in Denver, the worst loss in the Thibodeau era.