After a heartbreaking loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls have little time for a pity party. The team is set to face the feisty Atlanta Hawks tonight, a team they have faced twice already this season.
Apart from the fact that this is a conference matchup between two tough defensive teams, two that have faced off in the playoffs before, the battle for the season series is on the line. Following tonight's game, the Bulls and Hawks do not face each other again until the playoffs, depending on how certain chips fall into place.
Chicago was fortunate to come out on the winning end the last time the team met Atlanta, back on Jan. 14. It was a big win, but it should also be noted that the Bulls handily lost in Atlanta back on Dec. 22. It's anyone's game tonight, and both squads will bring their pesky defense at full force.
That will be tougher for Chicago. All-Star center Joakim Noah has a foot injury and is unlikely to suit up tonight. He is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and will be sorely missed in the middle.
This means that Chicago's offense may have to carry them, which has been no easy task without Derrick Rose. Against Atlanta, it's going to be even harder playing without him.
Time: Saturday, Feb. 2nd, 7 p.m. EST
TV: WGN, WGN America, SportSouth
Records: Chicago Bulls (28-18) vs. Atlanta Hawks (26-19)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, 8:34 a.m. EST
Injuries: Anthony Morrow (back, day-to-day), Zaza Pachulia (Achilles, day-to-day), Devin Harris (ankle, day-to-day), Lou Williams (knee, out), Carlos Boozer (hamstring, day-to-day), Kirk Hinrich (elbow, day-to-day), Joakim Noah (foot, out), Derrick Rose (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Can Bulls Offense Carry Them to Season-Series Victory?
Chicago last faced Atlanta on Jan. 14 at the United Center and won in a grand fashion. The Bulls managed a 97-58 victory thanks to 20 points and 13 rebounds from Carlos Boozer, plus 16 boards from Joakim Noah. It was a terrible game for the Hawks, who shot just 29 percent from the field and were out-rebounded 59-39.
The two teams' first meeting on Dec. 22 was the exact opposite, at least from Chicago's point of view. They lost that game 92-75, with Al Horford leading Atlanta with 20 points and 10 rebounds. On the Bulls' end, Luol Deng led with 11 points.
The stage for tonight's game could not be more different than it was for the two previous meetings. Joakim Noah's defense will not be present, and Lou Williams is out for the season with a torn ACL, leaving Atlanta without a reliable spark scorer.
Fortunately for the Hawks, their defense ranks ninth in points allowed and is strong enough that the team can still compete without Williams. Chicago losing Noah, on the other hand, is a different story.
The Bulls are coached by a defensive guru in Tom Thibodeau and rank third in points allowed. Their defense has helped them stay in the thick of the playoff race this season while Derrick Rose works his way back from ACL surgery, and they won't have their best weapon tonight in Noah.
This means that the Bulls will need a jolt from their offense, one that ranks 26th in points scored. Against Atlanta's feisty defense, that's going to be a tough task to undertake.
As hard as it may be, Chicago needs to bite the bullet and let their offense take over when it counts. This means driving the lane and drawing fouls on top of sinking key three-pointers. Three-pointers are a sensitive subject after the Bulls shot just seven percent from beyond the arc against Brooklyn on Feb. 1, but Chicago needs to shake that off and start sinking them in Atlanta.
The season series is on the line, and both teams would face each other if the playoffs started tomorrow. Thus, the Bulls need to have a playoff mentality and stop at nothing to win this game despite their key injuries.
Key Matchup: Taj Gibson vs. Josh Smith
If Carlos Boozer's hamstring keeps him out of what will be his third consecutive game missed, then Chicago will once again start Taj Gibson at the 4. Though a career backup for the Bulls, he has been phenomenal when called upon to play extended minutes.
Gibson is averaging just 7.3 points and five rebounds per game this season, but that's just over 21.4 minutes. Were he playing, say, 36 minutes, his numbers would be the following: 12.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
In the two games he has started in Boozer's place, the former USC Trojan has averaged 15 points, nine boards and two blocks per contest. His low post game is incredible and though he has yet to make much of an impact as a starter, just watch. This young man is going to play a key role in the Bulls' future.
He'll be in for a tough task tonight when matched up with Josh Smith, one of the league's best power forwards. Both men are the exact same size at 6'9", 225 pounds, and their similar approaches to the game will make for an epic battle.
On the season, Smith is averaging 16.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. He has been an interior force on both sides of the court and has also shown marked improvement with his three-point shot this season.
Gibson's job is going to be simple: slow down Smith. The man has made an art out of penetrating defenses and rising up for a thunderous dunk, and he's also a great defender.
More importantly, Smith has more experience as a starter than Gibson. This could definitely play a role in their showdown. He's going to take advantage of this, driving the lane hard while also stepping back for the occasional jumper.
Gibson will have to stop him at any cost, and this battle could easily be a stalemate. However, if there is a clear winner, they will definitely be on the winning team.
X-Factor: Nate Robinson
As was mentioned before, the Bulls offense is going to have to step up in Noah's absence. That means Nate Robinson needs to be a spark off the bench, and then some.
Though only 5'9", 180 pounds, Robinson has posted 11.5 points per game off the bench this year, averaging 22 minutes of play. He has also shot 38 percent from long range, making him even more valuable as a bench scorer.
Robinson has been especially hot as of late, averaging 18.4 points over his last five games and shooting an astounding 50 percent from the field. Against a tough Atlanta defense, he needs to keep that hot streak up.
This means that Robinson cannot rely solely on his jump shot. He must slash and dash his way to the hoop and try to draw a foul, as tough as that may be for someone of his size.
To think that he is incapable of doing so is just silly. This is a man who won the Slam Dunk Contest three times, so he has the court vision to find an opening in the paint and rise up for a throwdown.
If he can mix it up and make his shots consistently, then the Bulls have a chance. If he resorts to his jumper and nothing else, then the team is sunk.
I hate to say it, but the Bulls cannot win this game without Joakim Noah. He is just too important to the team's defense, and his blue-collar approach is borderline impossible to replace.
As a result, though the game will be incredibly close, the Hawks will come away with the victory tonight. Al Horford will patrol the paint with an iron fist, finishing with a double-double and swatting away some shots as well.
Who will win?
Josh Smith will also have a great game for Atlanta, coming close to a double-double and leading the Hawks in scoring.
Chicago's offense will try its best to keep the team in the game, but not having Noah to make the inside shots will hurt. Rip Hamilton's cold streak will continue, though Taj Gibson and Luol Deng will have solid performances.
Nate Robinson will give a respectable effort off the bench, but an inability to get past Atlanta's defense will keep him from getting the Bulls out of the hole. This game belongs to Atlanta, and they'll definitely be using it as a motivational tool once the playoffs start.
Atlanta Hawks 95, Chicago Bulls 90