Nets vs. Bulls: What to Watch for in Saturday's Clash of Eastern Conference Foes

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2012

Dec 12, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Bulls Joakim Noah (13) reacts to a call during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Planted directly in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race, Saturday night's clash between the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls will be a litmus test for both sides.

Injuries and chemistry issues have plagued both teams so far this year. Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton may not play until the clock strikes 2013 for the Bulls, and their "Bench Mob" is a shell of its former self.

On the other side of the court, the Nets' Brook Lopez cannot stay healthy and the team is still adjusting to an influx of new players.

Despite all of that, the Nets and Bulls are separated by a mere half-game in the standings at 13-9 and 12-9, respectively, and the winner on Saturday should have some momentum going forward. With that in mind, here is a look at what to watch for at the United Center. 


Which Stars Will be in the Lineup?

We already know the Bulls will be without both starting guards, as Rose and Hamilton won't be in anything but street clothes for at least the next few weeks.

However, Chicago may once again be without its top guard in their absence, Kirk Hinrich, due to a bone bruise in his knee. Hinrich missed Wednesday night's clash with the 76ers with the injury and is considered a game-time decision after participating in morning shootaround, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson

Without Hinrich, Nate Robinson would have to slide over to the starting point guard role—a fact that may be the very definition of a gift and curse for Tom Thibodeau.

Meanwhile, it's all curse for the Nets when Brook Lopez is out of the lineup. The star center made his triumphant return from a foot injury on Friday, playing 27 minutes in Brooklyn's double-overtime win over the Pistons. After the game, Avery Johnson would not commit to playing Lopez on back-to-back nights, something that should scare fans, considering the Nets were 2-5 without their leading scorer.

If both Hinrich and Lopez are in the game, this should be a contest that lives up to its billing. However, if either player is absent, it will feel a whole lot like fans are watching both sides' B-teams, even if Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are in the lineup. 


First Team to 95 Wins?

If you watch basketball longing for the days of the Showtime Lakers and mid-2000s Suns, this contest won't be your style. Heading into Saturday night, the Nets and Bulls are both mediocre offensively on their best nights, coming in at 18th and 24th in points per game, respectively.

Instead, both teams take the personalities of their coaches and emphasize defense. Chicago leads the NBA in defensive efficiency, giving up just 97 points per 100 possessions, while Brooklyn ranks in the top 10 in points per game against, at 94.3.

That means we're looking at a knockdown, drag-out style of contest. Neither side has a player who is scoring over 18 points per game, and both have gotten sporadic bench play as well, so it's not like there is any underlying statistic that points to this being a shocking shootout. 

In fact, it's very possible that the first team to 95 points will come away victorious—especially if Lopez and Hinrich are out of the lineup. 


Which Star Will Step Up?

There are very few scenarios in which this game doesn't come down to the wire. The spread opened at a mere two points in Chicago's favor, per Vegas Insider, but has been bet up to five, mostly due to Lopez's uncertainty.

In close contests, the winner almost always comes down to a star player putting the team on his back down the stretch. Johnson did it Friday night for the Nets, knocking down a buzzer-beater from just inside the three-point arc to give them a win over Detroit.

However, Saturday seems like it should be Williams' time to shine. The Nets' 2012-13 season has been quietly plagued with struggles, as Williams has taken a massive step back scoring-wise. He is shooting a career-low 38.8 percent from the field, scoring only 16.7 points per game, and is having his least efficient season since his rookie year with a 17.1 PER. 

Still, with Hinrich hobbled at the very least and Robinson a defensive turnstile, Brooklyn should expect nothing short of greatness from Williams.

As for the Bulls? Lopez's potential absence sets up a possible monster performance from Noah. The former Florida star has unquestionably taken the alpha dog reins this season with Rose out, setting career highs in points (13.9), assists (4.3) and blocks (2.3) per game while playing over 40 minutes a night.

Noah also had his first career regular-season 20-20 performance against the Pistons on Dec. 7, proving he can take advantage of a weak frontline.

Whether it's Noah or Williams, one of the two will step up and ultimately be the reason why his team comes away victorious on Saturday.