The Chicago Bulls will face the Cleveland Cavaliers at home tonight, and for the third time this season. The Bulls won the first two games and will enter tonight's game seeking their third straight victory. Contrastingly, the struggling Cavs will hope to avoid a third straight loss.
On paper, the Bulls have the clear advantage. They are a deeper, more experienced team and their defense is notably stingy.
However, the Cavaliers have proven to be a scrappy bunch this season. Despite a notable losing record, the team has come away with victories against the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks and even the Los Angeles Lakers. On top of that, three of Cleveland's last four losses have come by a combined margin of just 14 points.
The Cavs are not to be counted out, as their youthful core is slowly starting to come together and the team has already pulled off some upsets this season.
Beating the Bulls at the United Center would not only be another upset to put under the belt, but it may just be enough to put the young Cavaliers on a bit of a winning streak. Chicago has been the best team in the league each of the past two seasons and has continued to play phenomenally even without star point guard Derrick Rose.
The game is the Bulls' to lose and Cleveland will do everything in its power to ensure that happens.
Time: Monday, January 7th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: WGN, WGN America, Fox Sports Ohio HD
Records: Cleveland Cavaliers (8-27) vs. Chicago Bulls (18-13)
Betting Line: Cleveland (+8.5), Chicago (-8.5)
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Vladimir Radmanovic (flu day-to-day), Anderson Varejao (knee, day-to-day), Daniel Gibson (concussion, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Cleveland Seeks Upset Victory in Windy City Following Close Call in Cleveland
The Chicago Bulls last faced the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 5 and managed to take a 2-0 lead in the season series. However, despite 23 points from Marco Belinelli and 20 from Luol Deng, the Bulls won by only 10 points. This was much less than when they defeated Cleveland in November by a margin of 29 points.
Thus, Cleveland is going to look to close the margin even more tonight.
Kyrie Irving is back in full force after missing time with a broken finger and his young teammates are starting to emerge as a viable support system. Tyler Zeller is starting to look like he could be a solid center and Tristan Thompson's defense has been excellent.
Just the same, defeating Chicago will not be easy. The Cavaliers will be without leading rebounder and tough center Anderson Varejao tonight and his absence will be felt in the paint.
Moreover, as much potential as the Cavaliers have, their offense can be hit-or-miss. Cleveland ranks 23rd in points scored and 29th in assists, so the players' inexperience can sometimes be painfully obvious.
There will be no room for that tonight. Cleveland must be fully focused and have a set plan entering its game with Chicago. Execution will be key.
Of course, no matter how close their last matchup was, accomplishing that will not be easy against a stingy Chicago defense.
Key Matchup: Tyler Zeller vs. Joakim Noah
In Varejao's absence, rookie Tyler Zeller has seen a majority of the minutes at center. The former Tar Heel has good size at 7'0", 250 pounds and has averaged 10.6 points and 6.4 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks over his last five games.
His inexperience will play a huge role when he goes up against Joakim Noah, who is starting to look like a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. The former Florida Gator is averaging 12.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and two blocks per game, and has done an excellent job in stepping up his effort while Derrick Rose recovers from ACL surgery.
As hard as it may be, Zeller needs to fight past Noah's defense and do all he can to either get the ball in the hoop or go after a rebound. He's young and still has a lot to learn about playing center at the NBA level, and odds are that his minutes will greatly diminish once Varejao makes his return.
It is thus all the more important that he have a good game against Noah and the Bulls.
By holding his own and keeping the battle as close to a stalemate as possible, he will turn some heads and make people pay attention to him in the near future. Going up against Noah is no picnic and those who do keep up with him are truly on a different level than the rest of the pack.
Contrastingly, Noah needs to do all he can to shut down Zeller. It is his battle to lose, and Cleveland winning because he couldn't slow down a rookie would give Bulls fans plenty of reason to boo him.
He thus must continue to do what he has done all season long: Play tough defense and shut down the opposition. In doing so, Chicago's chances of winning skyrocket and Cleveland's tank.
X-Factor: Tristan Thompson
The Cavaliers turned a lot of heads when they selected Thompson out of Texas with the fourth pick in the 2011 draft, but it has been a move that has since paid off. The second-year forward has been an excellent rebounder at power forward this season, averaging nine per game to go with 9.6 points.
Over his last five games, however, Thompson has been on fire. Not only has he increased his scoring to 13.4 points per contest, but he has also posted 13 rebounds.
Against the weak Carlos Boozer, Thompson needs to be in full defensive beast mode. This means forcing Boozer into the low post and going after every rebound. It means sticking to Boozer like Superglue and taking him out of the game completely.
It's going to be an uphill battle for Thompson, as he is only a second-year player and Boozer has much more experience. Both are 6'9", but Boozer weighs 266 pounds to Thompson's 227, thus giving him more size.
Just the same, Thompson has what it takes to become a defensive wizard and must fight past Boozer's weaknesses in that department. He still has a lot to learn at just 21 years of age, but has proven in recent games that he has what it takes to play with the big boys.
If he can keep that up tonight in Chicago, then the Cavaliers may just have a shot at pulling off the upset.
The Cavaliers will do a good job of keeping this game close, but still won't be able to put the Bulls away. The team's offense is still a bit too reliant on point guard Kyrie Irving and his lack of a consistent go-to guy will hurt Cleveland down the stretch.
As a result, thanks to some clutch defense and key baskets in the fourth quarter, Chicago will pull away en route to victory.
Joakim Noah will get some key blocks against Zeller and also out-rebound him. Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli will sink clutch shots, and even Boozer will have a semi-productive scoring night.
Who will win?
The man that keeps Cleveland in the game will be none other than Tristan Thompson, who will continue his hot rebounding streak. By forcing Boozer into the low post and making him play defense, Thompson will win the battles on the boards and thus keep the Cavs alive with key putbacks and shots in the restricted area.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, it won't be enough. Chicago has played too well under Tom Thibodeau to lose to a team as low on the food chain as the Cavaliers and the team will further prove that it is one to watch come playoff time by gutting out a win against Cleveland.
Chicago Bulls 98, Cleveland Cavaliers 93
All statistics in this article are accurate as of January 6, 2013