The Chicago Bulls are coming off of a huge defensive victory against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 14, and they'll face an unusual task tonight. They face the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, in a true test of how elite teams handle big wins.
On paper, the Bulls should beat Toronto handily. The Raptors are out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but they have shown signs of potential. Earlier this season, the team went on a hot streak that saw it win five games in a row and eight of nine, so the Raptors are not to be counted out.
Toronto has gone 10-8 at home, so they are not a team to back down from a battle to protect their territory. Chicago has gone 10-5 on the road, so this matchup definitely has the makings of a close game.
It is also the first time that both teams will face each other this year and as I mentioned before, it's going to be interesting to see how the Bulls perform. After allowing just 58 points, will they enter this game riding the momentum and pull off another win, or will they get cocky and be forced to gut it out?
Time: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Chicago, Rogers Sportsnet
Records: Chicago Bulls (21-15) vs. Toronto Raptors (14-24)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, Jan. 16, 10:40 a.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee; out), Jose Calderon (hip; day-to-day), Kyle Lowry (ankle; day-to-day), Andrea Bargnani (elbow; out), Jonas Valanciunas (finger; out), Linas Kleiza (knee; out)
Key Storyline: Can Raptors Take Bulls by Horns in Quest for Upset?
The Chicago Bulls have not had star point guard Derrick Rose all season, but they have still played excellent basketball. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has his team ranking third in points allowed, seventh in rebounding and ninth in assists, so the players have done anything but go on autopilot in waiting for Rose to return.
This was evident in their win against Atlanta on Jan. 14. Holding a team to 20 first-half points is no joke, and the Bulls defense is definitely not one to be taken lightly.
However, one must factor in the adrenaline following such a game. Just how a baseball team tends to go quiet in a game following a large offensive output, the same may be said for an NBA team that plays exceptional defense one night.
As a result, the Toronto Raptors will be looking to exploit any and all mistakes that the Bulls make tonight. Any number of them could swing the pendulum in Toronto's favor, and an upset victory would mean a lot for this young and scrappy team.
Head coach Dwane Casey is thus going to make sure that his men are in full defensive mode, making the Bulls take contested shot after contested shot. The Raptors don't even need to win this game to get some momentum behind them; they just need to keep it close from start to finish and make sure that the Bulls feel as though they were in a fight as they head back to the locker room.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Amir Johnson
One of the Raptors' most reliable players in recent games has been center Amir Johnson. After being drafted right out of high school by the Detroit Pistons in 2005, the man is finally starting to live up to his potential with Toronto. The weird part is that size-wise, he does not look like someone who could be called an elite and athletic big man.
Johnson stands just 6'9", 210 pounds, and he has only started four of his 37 games this season. However, his performance over his last five contests has been notable.
Over that stretch, Johnson has posted 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 64 percent from the field over 35.8 minutes. Compare that to his regular-season numbers (9.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, one block over 24.1 minutes), and one can see just how important he has become to the team.
It is even more important that Johnson have an effective game against Chicago's Joakim Noah tonight. Noah has done a phenomenal job stepping up in Rose's absence, averaging 12.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. In doing so, he has become a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Noah does not have as much NBA experience as Johnson, but he's still a far superior defender. He has more size at 6'11", 232 pounds and just plays a more aggressive game in the paint. The former Florida Gator has what it takes to score points but knows that he is more valuable on defense and thus gets better in that department with every passing game.
His job tonight will be to shut Johnson down from start to finish, not giving him any opportunities on either end of the floor. Lesser experience aside, he has to make Johnson play his aggressive, hard-nosed game.
As much as Johnson has improved this season, it's going to be interesting to see how he keeps up with Noah.
X-Factor: Carlos Boozer
At long last, Carlos Boozer is starting to look like the player the Bulls thought they were getting back in 2010. He is only averaging 15.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, but the former Blue Devil's performance in the month of January has been incredible.
In seven games, Boozer has averaged 22.3 points and 10.6 boards while shooting 54 percent from the field. This is the player the Bulls hoped they would get, as Boozer was a double-double machine in his last four seasons with the Utah Jazz.
He is likely going to be guarded tonight by Ed Davis, who has started to blossom into an effective, young big man in the absence of Andrea Bargnani. Boozer needs to use his experience to show Davis that while he has done well in recent games, specifically 13 points and 7.8 rebounds over his last five, he still has a lot to learn about playing the 4 on the professional level.
This means Boozer must use his 6'9", 266-pound frame to force Davis into the low post and also drive past him to throw down a dunk or two. It's just a matter of him saying, "You may be good, but I'm still way better."
Throw in that Boozer went to Duke and Davis to North Carolina, and the Bulls' strong power forward has all the more reason to have another great game and carry his team to another victory.
The Raptors may be able to keep this game somewhat close, but they won't be able to defeat the tough and stingy defense of the Bulls. Tom Thibodeau has his players more focused on D than they ever have been during his tenure with the team, and such will be the case against Toronto tonight
Joakim Noah will have a double-double and show everyone just why he is the man to beat in the paint this year, both on offense and defense. Luol Deng will play pesky D on the perimeter and contribute to Toronto having a frustrating shooting night. DeMar DeRozan's woes will continue, as will those of Landry Fields.
Who will win?
Amir Johnson and Ed Davis will do a good job of keeping the Raptors in the game, but neither will be a match for Carlos Boozer. His explosive nature will continue to carry him and the Bulls to another win, and another double-double that includes a 20-plus point performance will leave Toronto fans stunned.
Don't get me wrong. The game will still be close. It will just be painfully obvious that the Bulls were in control from start to finish, and that the Raptors still have a lot of work to do before getting back among the Eastern Conference's elite.
Chicago Bulls 97, Toronto Raptors 90
All statistics are accurate as of Tuesday, January 15, 2013.