The Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets face off tonight, but this game isn't just about each team improving their record or gaining ground in the standings. Rather, both teams are just looking to get back on track.
The Bulls have lost two games in a row and stand just one and a half games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Central Division. The Bucks take on the Miami Heat in South Beach tonight, so it's a safe bet that the Bulls easily have a great chance of moving up in the standings by evening's end.
Houston, on the other hand, has lost three in a row and is tied with New Orleans for last place in the Southwest Division. The team has come back down to Earth following James Harden's hot start and has gone 2-7 after starting the season with two wins.
Both teams have the ability to get back into the swing of things, so tonight's game is definitely going to be a hard-fought battle on both sides. Defense will surely decide the winner, and the only question remaining is who will play it better.
Given the frontcourt talent on both teams, it's really anybody's game.
Time: Wednesday, November 21st, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSNC, CSNH
Records: Chicago Bulls (5-5) vs. Houston Rockets (4-7)
Betting Lines: Not available as of Wednesday, November 21st, 10:16 a.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), James Harden (illness, expected to play), Cole Aldrich (ankle, doubtful), Carlos Delfino (groin, doubtful)
Key Storyline: Bulls and Rockets Look to Defense to End Respective Losing Streaks
Both Chicago and Houston could really use a win, but both teams will have to rely on more than just scoring to obtain one. The Rockets may not have top scoring option James Harden tonight, as he is fighting flu-like symptoms, and the Bulls are still without star point man Derrick Rose.
Taking all factors into consideration, this is a game where the winner of the battle in the paint will break their team's losing streak. Both squads have great centers in Joakim Noah and Omer Asik, and them being teammates in Chicago for two seasons will surely be cause for some drama under the basket.
Houston also has a talented young power forward in Patrick Patterson, who is coming into his own now that he is receiving significant minutes. He'll likely be matched up against Carlos Boozer, who has been a general disappointment since arriving in Chicago in 2010.
Boozer may not be the most popular player on the Bulls, nor the best, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he needs to step up his effort tonight. Chicago only has one surefire scorer in Luol Deng, and Boozer needs to use his years of experience to absolutely take Patterson to school on both sides of the floor.
If Chicago can adopt a blue-collar attitude and make Houston play their game, they'll have a distinct advantage throughout the night.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Omer Asik
After backing up Noah and receiving limited playing time for two seasons, Asik left the Windy City to join Houston over the summer. A restricted free agent, he signed a three-year, $25.1 million contract. The Bulls declined to match the offer.
Asik has since been great in the paint for Houston, ranking third in rebounding with 12.3 per game. He has also been fine on offense in averaging 10 points per contest.
However, Asik is going to have anything but an easy time with his former teammate guarding him. In Rose's absence, Noah has done a fine job of stepping up and is averaging 14.8 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Keep in mind, these two were teammates together for two seasons. They practiced together. They learned a lot about how the other plays.
This previous relationship is going to make for a fine battle on defense tonight. Noah is only a year older than Asik, but he has five years of NBA experience compared to the Turkish seven-footer's two. This could be the difference-maker throughout the game.
Noah cannot get cocky, however, as Asik has done some fine work now that he's a starter. From start to finish, expect this battle of centers to be a dogfight.
X-Factor: Carlos Boozer
Boozer's scoring and rebounding have dropped ever since he came to Chicago, but that doesn't mean he should give anything less than his best effort in each of the Bulls' games. Tonight, he's in a position to do extremely well, as he will be matched up against the talented yet inexperienced Patrick Patterson.
Both players stand 6'9", but Boozer weighs 266 pounds to Patterson's 235. With Joakim Noah's hands full against Omer Asik, the former Duke Blue Devil needs to demand the ball and play a fine low post game to help ensure victory.
That isn't to say that Boozer needs to have an absolutely unbelievable night in order for the Bulls to win. Luol Deng is a fine scorer, and Nate Robinson will surely provide some fire off the bench.
All Boozer needs to do is make sure that he gets his fair share of touches and not be afraid to draw contact under the basket. This man was a double-double machine with the Utah Jazz, and he clearly has the ability to still be that after putting up solid numbers against the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers earlier this season.
In Houston, with the matchups in his favor, the stage is set for him to be the man who gets the Bulls back on the winning track.
In what's surely going to be one of the best defensive games of the season, the Bulls are going to be fully locked in and ready to play. As a result, they'll leave Houston above .500 and ready to get back to fighting for first place in the Central Division.
The Rockets will surely put up a respectable effort, with Asik going toe-to-toe with Noah all night long and Chandler Parsons hitting some key shots. Sadly, it's not going to be enough against a Bulls team that was the NBA's best for each of the past two seasons.
Look for Luol Deng to sink some key threes and come up with some big rebounds. Nate Robinson will have a good game off the bench and maybe make the highlight reel again.
In the paint, Boozer will take control while Noah and Asik battle to a stalemate. He's going to show Patrick Patterson what playing power forward is all about, and it's going to have a great effect on the former Kentucky Wildcat as he continues to blossom in his young NBA career.
It's not going to be a pretty win, but the Bulls will have earned it at the final buzzer.
Chicago Bulls 93, Houston Rockets 88