The battle of the Midwest undergoes its final chapter tonight when the Chicago Bulls face the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center. The Bucks have a 2-1 edge in the series, and the Bulls are going to stop at nothing tonight to come away with a win and even things up.
This also happens to be a battle of the Central Division. Chicago is in first place, but young and feisty Milwaukee is not far behind, just two-and-a-half games out of the top spot.
Both squads are also on hot streaks. Chicago has won four of five, while Milwaukee has won five of six. With the rivalry juices flowing, fans should expect a gutsy, blue-collar game with a big focus on defense.
Moreover, the Bulls are out for revenge in this contest. Milwaukee defeated them twice at home this season, most recently on January 9, and head coach Tom Thibodeau would love to even the season series by coming away with a win at the Bradley Center once again.
Of course, that's not going to be easy by any means. Milwaukee currently ranks seventh in the Eastern Conference and will be seeking to gain ground and stay hot. That means having an effective offensive game, never an easy task against Chicago's stingy defense.
Time: Wednesday, January 30th, 8 p.m. EST
TV: FSN Wisconsin, CSN Chicago
Records: Chicago Bulls (27-17) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (24-19)
Betting Line: Chicago (-1.5), Milwaukee (+1.5)
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Doron Lamb (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Chicago Seeks to Even Season Series with Win in Milwaukee
The Bulls and Bucks last faced each other on January 9, at the United Center. It was Bucks interim coach Jim Boylan's second game at the helm, and the Bulls were seeking a victory after blowing a lead against Milwaukee the last time they faced off in Chicago, on November 26.
Unfortunately, the Bucks came ready to play. Thanks to 35 points from Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee was able to come away with a 104-96 victory. Not even 22 points and 11 rebounds from Carlos Boozer and 19 points from Nate Robinson could give the Bulls a victory, as they just could not keep up with Milwaukee's offense.
That cannot be the case tonight. Chicago ranks third in points allowed and sixth in rebounding, and their defense is too good to be outdone by a streaky Milwaukee run-and-gun.
This means that Thibodeau needs to have his men in pure defensive mode from the get-go, maybe even employing a full-court press as early as the first quarter. The fact of the matter is that the Bucks' offense starts and stops with the backcourt tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, and slowing them down is the Bulls' main key to victory.
So long as they can do that and maintain pace in the frontcourt, they can have this game in the bag. Otherwise, Thibodeau will need to do some extra praying to the playoff gods so that his team does not have to take on the Bucks yet again in the postseason.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Larry Sanders
If the Bulls succeed in taking the Bucks' frontcourt out of the game, then the frontcourt aspect becomes absolutely critical. On Chicago's end, it's another opportunity for Joakim Noah to continue his All-Star season and make a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year.
In teammate Derrick Rose's absence, the former Florida Gator has done a phenomenal job of upping his effort. Not only has he been able to stay healthy, but his 12.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game have helped the Bulls stay in contention without their dynamic point guard.
Noah has also shown a little versatility with his offense. Not only has he been able to be a force under the basket, but he has shown some knack for nailing mid-range jumpers. This has lowered his field-goal percentage to 46 percent, down from 51 last season, but his defensive effort more than makes up for it.
Noah's defense is going to need to be in full form and then some against Milwaukee. He's going to be matched up with Larry Sanders, a third-year big man out of Virginia Commonwealth who has come out of nowhere this season to also be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Sanders has averaged just 8.4 points and 8.4 rebounds this season, but leads the NBA with 3.1 blocks per game. He and Noah are about the same size at 6'11", 235 pounds, so their matchup is going to turn into an absolute war in the paint.
However, Noah has what it takes to win it handily; unlike Sanders, he has years of experience as a starting center. He can dominate this battle, but must first shake off the cobwebs of the January 9 game.
Noah had eight points and 12 rebounds in that contest, but was held to 4-of-12 shooting. Sanders only had six points of his own, but had 12 rebounds and an astounding seven blocks.
Simply put, Noah cannot let that happen tonight. As good as Sanders is, Noah must show that he is better.
If he can do that and just be able to have a good shooting night against the Bucks' blocker, then Chicago has a shot at victory.
X-Factor: Jimmy Butler
Luol Deng may be back from his hamstring injury, but Jimmy Butler has still remained part of the Bulls' rotation. The second-year forward out of Marquette didn't start making noise until this month, and has only posted 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds over 20.7 minutes per game.
However, over his last five games, Butler has been far better. He has averaged 14.4 points and 8.2 rebounds through that stretch, and has shot 51 percent from the field.
Against a weak Bucks defense that ranks 17th in points allowed, the former Golden Eagle needs to do what he does best. Drive the lane on offense and play absolute lockdown defense.
This won't at all be hard, as a majority of Butler's offense has come in the restricted area this season, but that is not an excuse for the man to get lazy. Whether he gets 30 minutes or 13, Butler needs to demand the ball and take the Bucks' fast offense out of the game.
By just dominating in one area, he can swing the game in the Bulls' favor. Against the rival Bucks, his effort must be top notch, and then a little bit more.
So long as he can execute the important plays, Chicago will have this one in the bag.
The Bulls are out for revenge, and they will get it tonight. After losing to the Bucks at home twice, they will be fully locked in this evening to see that their regional and divisional rivals meet the same fate.
Joakim Noah will be better prepared for Larry Sanders, and will have a double-double while getting a little banged up in the paint. Sanders will have his fair share of blocks, but won't be any match for Noah when on offense.
Who will win?
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis will try to shoot the Bucks out of trouble, but Chicago's defense will ensure that their shots either fall short or are too strong. With no other player to really step up the effort in the scoring department, Milwaukee will find themselves sunk.
There will be no stopping Carlos Boozer, nor Luol Deng. Jimmy Butler will come off the bench and hit double-figures in scoring once again, cementing his status as a key member of the Bulls' future. Once Rose is back in the lineup, there's no telling how much he'll be able to do.
Ersan Ilyasova will try and bring back Ersanity, but to no avail. This game belongs to the Bulls, and the Bucks will only be able to sit and watch as their fate unfolds.
Chicago Bulls 99, Milwaukee Bucks 90