Positive vibes continue for the Indiana Pacers.
Head coach Frank Vogel’s team continued its late-season push for a playoff spot by taking care of a Chicago Bulls squad missing Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler with a workmanlike 98-84 home victory Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
A 10th win in 12 games pushed the Pacers (27-34) ahead of the Miami Heat (27-34) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers have the tiebreaker over the Heat based on a 2-1 head-to-head record. And they’re also just a half game behind the Charlotte Hornets (27-33) for seventh place.
The short-handed Bulls (39-24) resorted to hacking backup center Ian Mahinmi to try to make things interesting in the final minutes. But Mahinmi, who entered shooting just 32.3 percent at the line, sank five-of-eight foul shots in the final quarter.
When the Bulls pulled to within 75-72 with 8:02 remaining, the game was very much in doubt. The Pacers turned it over and missed three shots. But the Bulls missed, too. A C.J. Watson steal led to him sinking a pair of free throws, then he fed Mahinmi for a dunk.
C.J. Miles hit a 3-pointer to make it 82-74 and the Pacers pulled away to finish it. Ahead nine points, Mahinmi sank three-of-four free throws in two trips.
Mahinmi scored nine of his season-high 14 points in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed seven of his team-high 11 rebounds in the final quarter.
“I’ve been looking for a game where I could catch my rhythm,” said Mahinmi, who was averaging just 4.8 points. “I felt like today was that day. Hopefully I can keep building on that.”
The Pacers limited the Bulls to just 36 percent shooting (31-of-86). It’s the sixth time in seven games Indiana’s defense has limited the opposition to under 40 percent shooting.
“Our goal is to become a dominant defense again,” Vogel said.
Granted, it helps when Rose (18.4 points per game) and Butler (20.2 points per game) are sidelined by injuries. Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP and three-time All-Star, is out three to five weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Butler is out three to six weeks with an elbow strain.
But the Pacers have been playing without two-time All-Star Paul George (21.7 ppg in 2013-14) all season.
Offensive balance was again key, especially on a night when the home team didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, either. The Pacers were 34-of-80 (42.5 percent), but Solomon Hill scored a team-high 16, Mahinmi had his 14, Rodney Stuckey contributed 12, Watson 11 and David West and Miles each finished with 10.
“I just keep growing in confidence in what this group can accomplish,” Vogel said. “We’re showing some real positive signs.”
The Pacers hit the road Saturday night at the New York Knicks (12-48), who have the NBA’s worst record. Indiana knocked off New York 105-82 at home Wednesday night.
A recent stretch of mostly home games then continues with four more consecutive tests at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with the Orlando Magic (20-43), Milwaukee Bucks (32-29), Boston Celtics (25-35) and Toronto Raptors (38-24) visiting in a span of six days.
“We kind of feel like last year, where the crowd is behind us and we feed off their energy,” Mahinmi said. “It’s a good feeling. We’re in a good place right now.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.