After facing the feisty Golden State Warriors, the Chicago Bulls get a bit of a breather, albeit on the road. The team will visit the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center, a team that ranks dead last in points scored.
However, do not be so quick to write off the Wizards. Aside from their offensive struggles, they rank 12th in points allowed and sixth in rebounding. Even though his team has the NBA's worst record, head coach Randy Wittman is doing something right on defense.
That still does not take away from the Wizards losing three of their last five. When push comes to shove, it's still a young and inexperienced team without a solid veteran leader to help rally the troops. Nothing against Nene, Trevor Ariza or Emeka Okafor, but neither man really has the skill set to step up and be the star that the team needs to get out of the cellar.
Chicago needs to take full advantage of this, using its collective experience to make short work of Washington. The team has defeated the Wizards once already this year, at the United Center, and must use a similar approach for Round 2.
This means getting past its own scoring woes and fighting Washington's interior defense. Though the better team on paper, the Bulls could be in for quite the battle there.
Time: Saturday, January 26th, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: WGN, WGN America, CSN HD
Records: Chicago Bulls (26-16) vs. Washington Wizards (10-31)
Betting Line: Not available as of Friday, January 25, 3:09 p.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Luol Deng (hamstring, day-to-day), Cartier Martin (knee, out), Bradley Beal (wrist, out)
Key Storyline: Can Wizards Defense Stop Charging Bulls?
Chicago last faced Washington on December 29 and came away with the victory. To the Wizards' credit, however, their defense put up a respectable effort in preventing a blowout.
The final score was just 87-77, and Marco Belinelli led the Bulls with 17 points off the bench. On the Wizards' end, rookie Bradley Beal led with 14 points.
However, Washington was able to out-rebound Chicago, 56-49, thanks to 18 boards from Emeka Okafor, plus nine apiece from Nene and Garrett Temple. The Bulls also shot just 39 percent from the field, much unlike the team that had finished with the NBA's best record the last two seasons.
Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau should expect the same type of intensity out of Washington's defense this time around, and his players need to have a plan going in. Even in victory, the Bulls looked terrible against the Wizards in December, and a greater effort is needed.
This means that everyone from Boozer to Belinelli must be fully locked into this game. There can be no mistakes and no unintelligent risks taken. This game should be a blowout for the Bulls, but only if they approach the Wizards defense with a focused and balanced attack.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Emeka Okafor
One thing that the Wizards and Bulls have in common is that both of their centers are pure defensive ones. Emeka Okafor has made a name for himself as a rebounder and shot-blocker since joining the league in 2004, while Joakim Noah plays a more balanced game.
This season in particular has been great for Noah. He is averaging 12.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game and is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. Noah was also just named as a reserve on the Eastern Conference roster for this year's All-Star Game.
Okafor is a horse of a different color. He is an inch shorter than Noah, at 6'10", but outweighs his opponent by over 20 pounds at 255. The former UConn star has averaged 8.3 points and and eight rebounds this season, plus 1.3 blocks per season.
He has upped his rebounding his past five games, posting 11.4 per game over that stretch.
Okafor is going to have one goal in this game: defeat Noah on the boards again. He had a game-leading 18 rebounds the last time these teams faced off, and he must put in a similar or greater effort Saturday night.
That won't at all be easy, as Noah's tenacity in the paint gets fiercer with each passing game, and the Bulls will be playing to blow the Wizards out. However, if Okafor can stick to his guns and win the battles in the paint, Washington might just have a chance at pulling off the victory.
X-Factor: John Wall
The Wizards have one distinct advantage entering this game. They have their starting point guard back, and the Bulls don't.
John Wall has done a good job in his seven games this season, after missing a significant amount of time with a stress reaction in his knee. The former Kentucky Wildcat is averaging 14 points and 6.9 assists. He is only shooting 41 percent from the field, but he is committed to improving his jump shot, and his struggles this season could just be him getting his legs back.
Long story short, Wall needs to be in full point guard mode Saturday night. He must be willing to drive the lane and score, but also be ready to create plays for his teammates. He's going to be guarded by a weak defender in Kirk Hinrich and must take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.
This could be tough against a Chicago defense that ranks third in points allowed, but Wall cannot let that intimidate him. The Wizards are relying on him to improve his overall game so that he can one day lead them back into contention, and that isn't going to happen until he starts taking some risks.
This means being willing to get tossed around by tough defenders. It means being ready to take the hard shots and not just drive to the basket for a layup.
Most important of all, it means being a leader and realizing that improving one's own game is just as important as getting one's teammates involved. Wall learns this lesson more year by year and against the Bulls, he must utilize all that he has learned thus far.
The Bulls had a rough night against the Wizards in December, despite walking away with a win, but that will not be the case for Round 2. Chicago will enter this game ready to play, and will thus blow the Wizards out of the water with some complete lockdown defense.
Who will win?
Joakim Noah will have a double-double, and Carlos Boozer will come close as he has another great scoring night. Luol Deng will return from his hamstring injury and provide some solid minutes while sinking key shots and playing tough defense, proving to be a complete and utter pest for the young Wizards offense.
Washington will do all it can to stay in the game, be it looking to Bradley Beal for offense or Emeka Okafor for rebounds, but it won't be enough. Chicago will be better prepared for this game, and not even the efforts of John Wall will be able to help the Wizards pull off the upset.
Chicago will thus enter the nation's capital ready to play, and walk out with an epic win.
Chicago Bulls 102, Washington Wizards 84