INDIANAPOLIS – David West and George Hill came to Indiana to make the Pacers title contenders.
Now they have Indiana rolling along toward the playoffs.
West matched his season-high by scoring 31 points, Hill finished with 21 and the two accounted for the last nine points as the Pacers held off a late Bulls charge for a 97-92 victory in Sunday night's big Central Division showdown.
"He [West] leads our team in will," coach Frank Vogel said. "He has a great will to do whatever is necessary to get the job done and to get a 'W' and that was clear tonight."
The win gives the Pacers a clear advantage in the division race, too.
They extended their lead over the second-place Bulls to four full games and now own the tiebreaker, too, by virtue of sweeping this season's first three meetings with the Bulls. Indiana also has won six of seven since the All-Star break — the only loss coming when Roy Hibbert was suspended by the league for one game. And it closes the season with 10 of its remaining 22 games at home where the Pacers are 21-3 since early December.
That's not all.
The Pacers improved to 8-5 against the Eastern Conference's top seeds, a mark that includes the perfect record against the Bulls, a 2-0 record against Miami and a 2-1 record against the New York Knicks. And the Bulls will only get one more crack at Indiana before the playoffs start. That will come March 23 in Chicago.
"It's a huge win. It's someone who was the best in our division," Hill said, referring to the defending Central champs. "They say to be the best, you have to beat the best, and today we took that as a challenge to go out there and play hard."
The Pacers needed every ounce of effort and more to hold off the hard-charging Bulls.
Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler each scored 20 points, Joakim Noah had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Luol Deng added 15 points.
But for the second time in a month, the Bulls showed up at Indiana severely short-handed.
Both times they were missing point guard Kirk Hinrich, this time with a right foot injury. They were also still missing Derrick Rose, who continues to recover from last season's torn ACL in his left knee. On Sunday, the Bulls were also playing without guard Richard Hamilton, who didn't travel because of a lower back injury, and forward Taj Gibson, who sat out with a left knee injury.
The Pacers were only missing one player, Danny Granger, who spent the second half on the bench after aggravating a left knee injury that kept him out of Indiana's first 54 games.
There was no question about the difference. Indiana took control early and the Bulls spent the rest of the night playing catch-up, unable to retake the lead after the 45 minutes.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said the injuries were no excuse.
"It's the NBA, we've got plenty in that locker room, we've got to get the job done," he said.
The Pacers took advantage, building a 32-21 lead after one quarter and still leading 47-40 at halftime. They didn't let the Bulls get closer than four until Butler hit a 3-pointer with 31.1 seconds left in the third quarter, and the Bulls couldn't tie the score until Deng hit an 8-footer early in the fourth.
After Hill answered with five straight points for Indiana, the Bulls charged back and tied the score again at 80 when Butler made two free throws with 7:04 to play.
"We fought really hard and gave ourselves a chance," Deng said. We've been there before many times, but it's tough. We just didn't have it tonight."
The Pacers answered the second challenge by converting back-to-back turnovers into four points.
The Bulls did have one last gasp to send it to overtime, but Belinelli missed a 3 with 7.8 seconds left, and after the rebound went out of bounds off the Pacers, West came up with a steal and made two free throws to seal the win.
"They were making 3s and they were able to make some clutch ones tonight," West said. "But throughout the year, as our defense has continued to grow, we know that we have confidence to make plays in games and to get stops to win."
Notes: Vogel picked up the 100th win in his coaching career. ... Bulls rookie Marquis Teague scored two points in his second trip to his hometown this season. ... Paul George finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for his 20th double-double of the season. ... This is the first time the Bulls have lost a season series to Indiana since 2003-04. ... Vogel said Granger's absence in the second half was precautionary and that he wasn't worried about any long-term impact to Granger's knee.