Why Bulls must defeat Pacers tonight to avoid play-ins

Indiana Pacers v Chicago Bulls
Indiana Pacers v Chicago Bulls / Jamie Sabau/GettyImages

Just when things seemed to be going well for the Chicago Bulls, it didn't take long for it to come crashing back down. After stringing out three consecutive wins on the road against tough Western competition, the Bulls have now dropped their last two games against the Clippers and Mavericks and fallen to three games under .500 with a record of 31-34

All hope isn't lost yet, as the Bulls still hold a 1.5-game lead on the 10th-seed Hawks and are still within striking distance of catching up to the East's 6th, 7th, and 8th-seeded teams. On top of all that, they hold the NBA's 2nd easiest remaining strength of schedule, meaning there's still plenty of opportunity to make up some ground on the opposition.

The Bulls have arguably their best chance to get back on the right track tonight against a division rival in Indiana. The Pacers started the year off strong with a 23-16 record, but have since posted a 14-14 record across their last 28 games. Still developing their team chemistry after trading for All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam, now is a great chance for Chicago to strike and begin their ascent up the standings.

This game is particularly important because the Pacers currently hold the East's 6th seed — the last guaranteed playoff spot without having to participate in the play-in tournament. If Chicago has any hope of avoiding the play-ins and facing an early elimination as they did at the hands of the Heat last year, the Bulls must pick up a win tonight.

The Bulls need a win tonight in Indiana if they hope to capture the sixth seed and a guaranteed playoff spot.

Of course, the Bulls won't technically be mathematically eliminated from the playoff hunt if they lose tonight. But with only 16 games remaining on the schedule after tonight, I can't envision a world where this team manages to close in on the Pacers' 6.5-game lead with such limited time remaining on the clock. Tonight should be treated as a 'must-win' scenario for the Bulls.

Led by Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana has vastly improved from their 35-win finish a year ago and established themselves as one of the NBA's rapidly rising teams. By pairing Haliburton with the dynamic frontcourt duo of Siakam and Myles Turner, the Pacers are certainly not a team to be taken lightly.

The Pacers will be forced to survive the loss of Bennedict Mathurin, however, as he has been forced to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum injury. Of course, the Bulls are no strangers to devastating injuries, as they've lost three starting caliber players in Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Lonzo Ball.

Tonight's action tips off relatively early at 6:30 pm CDT, so there's no excuse for the Bulls to miss this big game. You can tune in via NBC Sports Chicago or stream the game online. The result of tonight's game just might determine if the Bulls will fall short of their playoff hopes for the second season in a row.