The Chicago Bulls have little time for a pity party. After losing to the Charlotte Bobcats on New Year's Eve and thus being the team lucky enough to break Charlotte's 18-game losing streak, Chicago gets to take on another subpar foe in the Orlando Magic on January 2.
Orlando is looking to break a streak of its own, having lost six in a row. Despite that, the team's most recent loss was an overtime thriller against the Miami Heat. Head coach Jacque Vaughn's boys will have a lot of momentum coming into their game against Chicago, and the idea of an upset will be flowing through their collective veins.
The Bulls, however, will still have the upper hand. They faced the Magic at home on November 6 and came away with the victory.
Chicago must look to do the same, but on the road this time. Orlando has gone 7-10 at home, but has played some highly respectable defense in spite of losing Dwight Howard via a trade over the summer.
The stage is thus set for a defensive showdown, and the experienced Bulls will look to get past the scrappy youth of the Magic.
Time: Wednesday, January 2, 7 p.m. ET
TV: CSN Chicago, Fox Sports Florida
Records: Chicago Bulls (16-13) vs. Orlando Magic (12-19)
Betting Lines: Chicago (-3.5), Orlando (+3.5)
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Kirk Hinrich (knee, day-to-day), Joakim Noah (illness, day-to-day), E'Twaun Moore (elbow, day-to-day), Gustavo Ayon (thigh, day-to-day), Jameer Nelson (hip, day-to-day), Glen Davis (shoulder, out)
Key Storyline: Can Magic Ride Momentum into Breaking Streak?
The Magic have lost six games in a row and will have an upset in mind after nearly defeating the defending champion Miami Heat. Helping them will be that despite losing to Chicago in November, it was only by a six-point margin, 99-93. Orlando also had the lead after three quarters before Chicago pulled away in the fourth.
Orlando managed to compete thanks to 28 points from guard Arron Afflalo plus double-doubles from both Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Nikola Vucevic. Unfortunately, the Bulls' balanced attack proved to be just too much, and Luol Deng's 23 points helped Chicago to victory.
Orlando now has a lot more to play for. After getting off to a decent start, a six-game losing streak has them looking just how they were predicted to look this season: young, inexperienced and entering a rebuilding phase.
Every player on the Magic must thus be fully focused Wednesday night. They have what it takes to keep the game close, and it's just a matter of wanting the win more.
Chicago will want to shake off the loss to Charlotte and win just as badly, which should make for a great matchup in the Sunshine State.
Key Matchup: Nikola Vucevic vs. Joakim Noah
One of the Magic's best qualities this season has been their defense. Thanks to a tough interior presence from Davis and Vucevic, Orlando ranks 10th in both rebounding and points allowed.
Acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade, Vucevic has broken out in Orlando this season. He is averaging 10.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and turned in a thrilling performance against Miami. In that game, he pulled down an astounding 29 rebounds to go with his 20 points.
He'll be in for a tough matchup against Chicago, as the tough defense of Joakim Noah will seek to shut him down. Both men are similar in size, with Noah standing 6'11", 232 pounds and Vucevic 7'0", 240 pounds, but Noah's experience definitely counts for something.
The former Florida Gator has done an excellent job stepping up his effort in star point guard Derrick Rose's absence, averaging 12.8 points and 10.3 rebounds to go with 2.1 blocks. Even though he is day-to-day with an illness, he needs to use his pure defensive game to shut down Vucevic.
That isn't to say that Vucevic has zero chances of winning his battle with Noah. He is a fine defensive player, and his breaking out this season is only the tip of the iceberg regarding his full potential. Keep in mind, this is the same player who averaged 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds his junior year at USC, so his potential on the NBA level is clear.
If he can just keep up with Noah on defense, not necessarily outdo him, but keep up with him, then the Magic will have a fighting chance at breaking their streak.
X-Factor: Arron Afflalo
Afflalo has been Orlando's leader on offense this season, and he played a key role in keeping the game close against the Bulls when the teams first faced off. The former UCLA Bruin has averaged 17 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. Afflalo is also a great three-point shooter, having shot 40 percent from long range for his career.
However, Afflalo has shot just 34 percent from beyond the arc this season. Even though he has averaged 20.4 points over his last five games, he has shot just 25 percent from long range. Against Chicago in November, he shot 3-of-7 from long range, keeping Orlando in the game from start to finish.
Afflalo needs to be that same type of spark again. Chicago is a tough defensive team that ranks third in points allowed, and shutting down the Magic's best scorer will be first priority. Tom Thibodeau will look to take full advantage of Afflalo's struggles from long range this season, and a bad shooting night from the young guard could be enough to sink Orlando.
As a result, Afflalo must rely less on his three-pointer and driving the lane and more on his mid-range jumper. He must create his own shot off the dribble as well as drive the lane and shoot threes. He must be willing to take risks and be the leader on offense GM Rob Hennigan thought he was acquiring in the Howard trade.
More importantly, Afflalo just needs to be great against Chicago. By providing a spark on offense and taking full advantage of a weak defender in Rip Hamilton, he will keep his team in the game from start to finish and, depending on how certain chips fall into place, potentially lead them to a victory.
The Bulls broke the Bobcats' losing streak, but will send the Magic to a seventh straight loss. As close as the game will be, Orlando's lack of a dominant low-post presence in the absence of Glen Davis will keep them from sealing the victory at the Amway Center.
Afflalo will have a great night on offense, but it just won't be enough to put the Magic over the top. Noah will outmatch Vucevic in the paint, and Luol Deng will fight past the weak defenses of Moe Harkless and Hedo Turkoglu with ease.
Who will win?
Fortunately for the Magic, they will keep the game close from start to finish. Guard J.J. Redick will sink some key three-pointers off the bench and definitely score in double figures while making a case for Sixth Man of the Year. In the fourth quarter, he will definitely have Chicago fans' hearts pounding.
Unfortunately, it won't be enough in the long run. Chicago has the experience advantage and will ride it to victory in Florida.
Chicago Bulls 100, Orlando Magic 95