Even with Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls were outmatched by the Indiana Pacers last week. Then again, no team has been Indiana's match this season.
Chicago may have an even tougher time becoming the first to knock off the Pacers - and prevent them from notching the longest win streak in their NBA history - if Rose doesn't return Saturday night at the United Center.
"It'll be a great test," said Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who would start his second straight game if Rose can't go. "They're playing as good as anybody in the league right now."
Indiana (9-0) remains the NBA's only unbeaten team, off to the best start by any franchise since Dallas in 2002-03. The nine-game win streak has matched the team record since joining the NBA, set in November 2002, and is two shy of the longest in Pacers history from their ABA days.
"We have something special here," center Roy Hibbert said. "... We don't wanna lose."
One of their most lopsided victories came against Chicago (4-3), a 97-80 thrashing on Nov. 6 that saw Rose and Luol Deng combine to shoot just 12 for 33 en route to 17 points apiece. Rose had four turnovers and only two assists.
Five nights later, Rose's troubles continued as he suffered a mild hamstring injury in a win over Cleveland. The 2011 MVP missed his first game of the season Friday, but Chicago still rolled to a 96-80 win in Toronto. The Bulls may have given Rose the night off against the sub-.500 Raptors knowing that 24 hours later they would be facing the NBA's best - and one of their biggest rivals.
While coach Tom Thibodeau denied that notion, Chicago has a much better track record against the Pacers with Rose than without him. Entering the season, the Bulls had won 12 of 16 against Indiana when Rose played, including the 2011 playoffs. Chicago lost three of its four meetings last season without him.
Coming into this meeting, however, Rose is averaging a career-worst 14.7 points on 33.3 percent shooting after missing last season with a torn ACL. Chicago had no trouble winning Friday with Hinrich filling in, as the veteran contributed 12 points and all five starters scored in double figures.
"I thought Kirk did a great job of running the team, had a very balanced scoring attack," Thibodeau said. "With Derrick out, we know we have to play a certain way, and we need everybody."
While the Bulls led by double digits through the final three quarters Friday, the Pacers haven't trailed after the first quarter in their last two games while holding both Memphis and Milwaukee below 80 points.
"We can't feel too good about ourselves, we know how good Indiana is," Thibodeau said. "We're going to have to play tough."
Hibbert leads a Pacers defense which has yet to allow more than 91 points. The 7-foot-2 center blocked a season-high eight shots Friday in a 104-77 win over the Bucks - Hibbert leads the NBA with 4.8 blocks per game - and also had a season-best 24 points with 10 rebounds.
"Some guys on this team before were just trying to get a paycheck and go home and then chilling on the beach and sip mojitos or something like that," Hibbert said. "That's not us."
Hibbert, along with David West, helped hold Chicago's Carlos Boozer to six points on 3-of-10 shooting last week. Boozer has averaged 19.6 points and 60.8 percent shooting in his other six games.
Paul George has keyed the Pacers' success in the past five matchups, averaging 21.8 points and 9.4 rebounds. He tied a season low with 21 points against the Bulls but remains the offensive catalyst for an Indiana team which already has a four-game lead over Chicago in the Central Division.
"We're on a mission," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, "and we're trying to put ourselves in best possible position come playoff time."