The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls find themselves in a similar position at this point in the NBA's marathon of a season, although they seem to be on different trajectories as far as their futures are concerned.
Atlanta was once positioned as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, coming as close as a half a game of the Miami Heat for the league's best record, but they've fallen as of late. At 21-15, they've lost six of their last eight games with losses to the likes of the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are on their way to proving that they could very well be a title contender if Derrick Rose is able to work his way back into the lineup well.
They may be just 20-15, but they seem to be a team capable of beating anybody, but also capable of losing to anybody.
Time: 8 p.m. EST
TV: NBA TV
Records: Atlanta Hawks (21-15), Chicago Bulls (20-15)
Betting Line: Chicago Bulls -4
Injury Report: Derrick Rose, Out (ACL Surgery); Anthony Morrow, Doubtful (Strained Hip/Back)
Key Storyline: Playoff Positioning Per Atlanta's Slide
As they stand right now, the Atlanta Hawks are just a half game in front of the Chicago Bulls as we approach the halfway point of the season.
The Hawks have looked flawed as of late, sliding back in the standings as their perimeter defense slackens and shots fall at a bit of a slower rate.
Chicago's defense isn't going to help do them any favors, but they shouldn't have any trouble keeping the Bulls from making three-pointers, as they drain a league-worst 4.6 long balls per game.
Key Matchup: Josh Smith vs. Carlos Boozer
While Josh Smith will probably be guarding a lot of Luol Deng on the perimeter in this one, there's going to be a lot riding on each team's power forward, at least offensively speaking.
As far as Carlos Boozer goes, he's very near having a redeeming season, as he's been Chicago's most consistent and productive offensive weapon.
Not only is he shooting a solid percentage, he's getting to the rim a ton compared to last season and being a lot more aggressive on the offensive end.
Boozer's offensive success is key to a win for Chicago, so he's going to have to keep his solid stretch going for Chicago to score a decent amount of points.
As for Josh Smith, something interesting yet completely predictable has come up regarding Smith's style of play.
All too often, Smith will settle for long jumpers, leading to more misses than Atlanta fans can psychologically deal with. When Smith shoots no three-pointers, the Hawks are 4-1, and when he shoots four or more, the team is 1-7.
Smith's aggression is key to Atlanta's offense. Not only does it force the defense to collapse much more often than they would like, it gets the long-ball game going, as it leads to unwanted rotations by the defense.
X-Factors: Lou Williams, Taj Gibson
While I'm not so sure that Lou Williams is still in the Sixth Man of the Year award conversation, he's still a solid choice off the bench for the Hawks.
He's a capable scorer, averaging 15 points per game, but he's doing it all while shooting 42 percent from the field. He does redeem a rather low field-goal percentage by shooting an acceptable 37 percent from the three-point line.
Williams is capable of going off at any time, peaking at 28 points against the Celtics a few games back, and he can easily be relied upon for an easy 14 points in every game.
Taj Gibson is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
He averages just over seven points per game and has peaked at 21 points in a game against the Magic at the beginning of the month, but he's an excellent rebounder and defender off the bench.
Not only is he one half of one of the most dominant defensive tandems in the NBA alongside Joakim Noah, but he's incredibly athletic and can get on a run of great plays if he gets the energy flowing.
This is going to be an extremely interesting game to tease out.
On the one hand we've seen the lows that both teams can sink to. Whether it be the Bulls losing to the Charlotte Bobcats or the Phoenix Suns, or the Hawks losing to the Washington Wizards or the Cleveland Cavaliers—both teams can have bad games.
The last time these two met was in Atlanta, and the Hawks won that one convincingly 92-75. But, they were on a hot streak at that point, something they're not really riding right now.
So, what will rise to the top in this one? Chicago's defense or Atlanta's all-around game.
I've got to go with the Hawks in this one, even on the road. They've had massive lapses in perimeter defense lately, and Atlanta is great at dropping shots in from long range.
Atlanta Hawks 95, Chicago Bulls 87
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