Chicago has won six of its last eight games and has emerged as a top-three team in the Eastern Conference—all without Derrick Rose.
An immaculate start, however, has been all but forgotten for Charlotte. The Bobcats have lost eight of their last 10 and have gone 4-27 since beginning the year 7-5.
That said, Chicago is fresh off a loss to a lowly (albeit suddenly compelling) Washington Wizards team. Charlotte will be hoping to pull off a similar upset as it travels to Chicago to face a Bulls team that has been less than impressive at home this season.
Will the Bobcats be able to hand the Bulls their second straight loss as they look to capture their second consecutive victory? Or will Chicago do what it has struggled to do for most of the season and hold down its home court?
Time: Monday, January 28, 8 p.m. EST
TV: NBA League Pass
Records: Charlotte Bobcats (11-32) vs. Chicago Bulls (26-17)
Betting Line: TBD
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Bobcats: Byron Mullens (ankle), out.
Bulls: Luol Deng (hamstring), questionable; Derrick Rose (knee), out.
Key Storyline: Are the Bulls a dominant home team without Derrick Rose?
I've been thoroughly impressed with what the Bulls have been able to accomplish without Rose. Not only are they nine games over .500, but they currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Somewhat surprisingly, Chicago is just 14-11 at home, but has posted a 12-6 record on the road. Though the Bulls are above .500 when playing on their own turf, they've lost some troubling games to the Phoenix Suns and even the Bobcats themselves less than one month ago.
That the Bulls have been able to lay claim to such an impressive standing in the East without being a dominant team at the United Center is both admirable and perplexing.
Again, they've been far from horrible, but of all NBA teams, their home record ranks 19th. Not exactly indicative of a playoff team, let alone a contender like the Bulls, is it?
Becoming a near unbeatable team at home dictates you win the games you should; it suggests that minor bumps are near nonexistent.
The Bulls' bout with Charlotte stands to be one of those "bumps," unless they can take advantage of the Bobcats' 5-14 road record like they're supposed to.
Key Matchup: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Bobcats vs. Jimmy Butler, SF, Bulls
Luol Deng is questionable after missing five straight, which makes the matchup at small forward even more interesting.
Not only does Deng's 17.4 points per game lead the team, but his defense has (once again) been incredible. At present, he's holding opposing small forwards to an average PER of 11 per 48 minutes, well below the league average of 15.
In Deng, opposing teams have quite the headache. Not only can he score from anywhere on the floor, but he moves well without the ball and is an adequate isolation scorer as well.
Which means Jimmy Butler has some enormous shoes to fill—ones that he's been filling admirably.
Over the last five games, Butler has dropped 16 or more points three times, creating a matchup headache for opposing defenses himself.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going to have his hands full even if Deng doesn't play.
In just his first professional season, Kidd-Gilchrist has already established himself as one of the league's best defenders.
He's holding opposing forwards to an average PER of 13.3 per 48 minutes and is fifth amongst all small forwards with one block per game.
Kidd-Gilchrist's on-ball defense is impeccable, and he excels at thwarting players who thrive in isolation. Butler isn't as versatile a scorer as Deng, but he's extremely athletic and will create some problems for Kidd-Gilchrist off the dribble.
Toss in Kidd-Gilchrist's broken jump shot and generally inconsistent offense, and the neophyte is going to be hard-pressed to have an edge even if Deng rides the pine yet again.
Ben Gordon, SG, Bobcats
Against a Bulls team that allows just 91.1 points per contest (third), the Bobcats are going to need scorers, none more important than Gordon.
Though Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker can put points on the board in a hurry, Gordon is, at the very least, just as important.
Per hoopstats.com, Charlotte's bench ranks second in the league in points scored per game with 41, which is one of the few advantages they have over Chicago. But while the Bulls' bench ranks 24th in points scored (27.9), they're third in points allowed (29.6).
Gordon, as the Bulls themselves know, provides instant offense. He's currently scoring a mediocre 13.2 points a night, but he's dropped 18 or more points five times this month.
From top to bottom, Chicago's defense borders on impenetrable. For the Bobcats to have a puncher's chance at winning their second straight in the Windy City, they're going to need all offensive hands on deck.
Especially off the bench.
Nate Robinson, PG, Bulls
Nate Robinson doesn't receive enough credit—ever.
While he's notorious for having an itchy trigger finger, he's a source of high-octane offense for a team that doesn't score much. Remember, the Bulls rank 26th in points scored a night (93.3), and Robinson is averaging 11.1 points in just over 21 minutes per contest.
Against a Bobcats team that ranks 28th in points allowed (103.2), Chicago needs to put some serious offense on the boards. The Bulls totaled just 82 points in the two teams' first meeting (a seven-point loss), which is a performance they can't afford to repeat if they wish to emerge victorious.
The point guard is not only an underrated playmaker, but he's scored at least 19 points in each of his last two games. He's no stranger to an offensive outburst and stands to be the driving force behind Chicago's attempt to break 100 points against one of the league's worst defenses.
Simply put, for the Bulls to cruise to victory the way they should, they're going to need a voluminous outing from Robinson off the pine.
After already dropping one to the Bobcats at home this year, I just don't see the Bulls doing it again. They're the type of defensive team that causes problems for an offensive juggernaut like the Warriors, let alone a 28th-ranked offense like the one Charlotte boasts.
They key for Chicago here is ensuring that they dismantle the Bobcats defense, though. Again, the first time around, the Bulls totaled just 82 points, which is unacceptable.
Charlotte is one of seven teams that allows more than 100 points a night, and as reserved as Chicago's offensive attack is, it can't afford to not break at least 90.
Which team will emerge victorious?
Because while the Bobcats aren't what you would call a potent team on either side of the floor, they can get streaky on offense. Guys like Walker, Henderson and Gordon are point-totaling machines, and if the Bulls defense breaks down even slightly, Charlotte could take advantage of it.
To that end, the Bulls are going to need strong offensive outings from others in Deng's potential absence. Butler, Robinson, Joakim Noah and the surging Carlos Boozer are all going to need to step, more so than they did against the Wizards.
With the previous loss to Charlotte fresh on on its mind, I doubt Chicago will have any issues remaining motivated in this one, though. I wouldn't expect a blowout, because the Bulls do have a troubling tendency to play down to the abilities of their opponent (see the Detroit Pistons game).
Yet even if Deng is forced to sit once again, this is the type of game the Bulls need.
And it's one they're going to get.
Bulls 94, Bobcats 85
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.