George Karl's Denver Nuggets have won seven in a row, and they'll be tested on Feb. 7 when the tough Chicago Bulls visit the Pepsi Center. Even though star point guard Derrick Rose has yet to play this season as he recovers from a torn ACL, the Bulls have played excellent basketball and rank third in points allowed, not to mention fourth in the Eastern Conference.
The Nuggets rank fifth in the highly competitive Western Conference and finally seem to have gotten the formula right after a sluggish start. Each player has settled into his role beautifully, and team chemistry has been sky high during Denver's winning streak. Of the seven wins, one came against the ever-dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 20.
Denver has also twice beaten the Houston Rockets during its seven-game winning streak and those pesky Indiana Pacers. It may have taken them a while to arrive to the party, but they have certainly made a grand entrance, winning 13 of 15.
The banged-up Bulls are just another test, one that the Nuggets will be prepared for by the opening tip. Both teams want this win badly, and the clash of tough defense and a motion offense will be tons of fun to watch.
Time: Thursday, Feb. 7, 10:30 p.m. EST
Records: Chicago Bulls (29-19) vs. Denver Nuggets (31-18)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, Feb. 6, 9:14 a.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Kirk Hinrich (elbow, day-to-day), Joakim Noah (foot, day-to-day), Marco Belinelli (ankle, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Banged-Up Bulls Slow Down Nuggets Offense?
The Chicago Bulls have a great defense, but just how effective it will be against a Denver offense that ranks third in scoring remains to be seen. All-Star center Joakim Noah has missed three straight games with a foot injury, and Carlos Boozer has been dealing with a sore hamstring.
It also doesn't help Chicago that Denver is the best rebounding team in the league, which means that the team may need to step out of its comfort zone tonight. By that, of course, I mean that the Bulls' offense needs to keep up with that of the Nuggets'.
This isn't at all going to be easy. The Bulls rank just 25th in points scored and have clearly been hurting from the absence of Rose. However, there is one reason that they should look to do all they can offensively against Denver.
The Nuggets rank 25th in points allowed. They are a good rebounding team, but their on-the-ball D is very hit or miss. If the Bulls can keep the ball moving constantly, sort of like the Princeton offense, and find the open man regularly and convert their shot attempts, then they have a shot at winning this game.
Throw in the team's signature lockdown defense, and Chicago could have this game in the bag early.
Key Matchup: Luol Deng vs. Danilo Gallinari
If there's anyone who can help the Bulls keep up on offense and give a similar or even greater effort defensively, it's Luol Deng. Ever since being drafted out of Duke in 2004, he has been an excellent defender who can also hold his own in the scoring department.
Deng has done that and more in Rose's absence this year, leading the Bulls with 17.2 points per game and also 6.7 rebounds. He is an incredibly effective force on offense, preferring to drive the lane most of the time and not rely so much on a mid-range jump shot, like most small forwards. However, should any team leave him open in the corner, they ought to hold their breath until that ball decides to fly through the net or hit the rim.
He also has good size for his position at 6'9", 220 pounds. That may seem on the skinny side, but it allows him to create mismatches that drive opponents nuts.
However, though Deng has posted 16 points per contest over his last five games, he has shot just 35 percent from the field. Against Denver, that needs to change.
All scoring woes aside, he'll need to bring his pesky nature and then some to Denver, where he'll be tasked with shutting down shooter extraordinaire Danilo Gallinari.
Gallinari, who leads Denver with 17.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, is an inch taller than Deng at 6'10". However, unlike his opponent, he is not a strong defender at all. In this game, he's going to have to at least try.
Offensively, Gallinari's percentages have been fairly average this season. Inconsistency with his mid-range jumper has led to him shooting just 42.5 percent from the field, though he has made 37 percent of his threes.
He has looked like a different player over his last five games, in spite of his sluggish start to the season. Through that stretch, Gallinari has posted 21.6 points while shooting 51 percent from the floor. From downtown, he has shot an astounding 44 percent.
It's going to be Deng's job to slow down Gallinari at any cost tonight. Rather than let him use his long range game, he must force him to drive the lane as often as possible.
On Gallinari's end, it's going to be all about trying to create off the dribble and fake Deng out—not an easy task against the All-Star forward.
This battle could easily go to a stalemate, but whoever can maintain the slightest upper hand throughout most of the game will surely come out on the winning end.
X-Factor: Nate Robinson
With all of the troubles the Bulls have had at the point this season, from Derrick Rose being out to Kirk Hinrich struggling all year long, most probably do not realize just how much of a godsend Nate Robinson has been for this team. Whether he's being a spark off the bench or making a spot start, he has answered the bell each time and gotten the job done.
Robinson has posted 11.8 points and four assists per game this season, and he has also shot a highly respectable 39.5 percent from long range.
Over his last five games, however, Robinson has looked like a different player. Rather than a sixth man/shooter, he has gone into full playmaker and distributor mode. To be blunt, he has looked like an All-Star-caliber scoring point guard.
Robinson has averaged 18 points, 7.2 assists and 2.6 steals through that stretch, and he has also shot 49 percent from the field and an amazing 50 percent from three-point range.
This man is the key to Chicago keeping up with Denver's dribble-drive offense, and he'll need to be in full point guard mode against a tough opponent in Ty Lawson. He must also be a force on defense as well, not being afraid to take a charge or get a little banged up in the quest for victory.
So long as he can stick to the plan coach Tom Thibodeau has mapped out for him and choose his shots wisely, Robinson can easily be the man of the hour if Chicago manages to come away with the victory.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG Kirk Hinrich
SG Richard Hamilton
SF Luol Deng
PF Carlos Boozer
C Joakim Noah
PG Ty Lawson
SG Andrew Iguodala
SF Danilo Gallinari
PF Kenneth Faried
C Kosta Koufos
All good things must come to an end, and such will be the case for Denver's winning streak when the Bulls come to town. The team has looked great during its recent successful stretch, but Chicago's defense is just too tough and blue collar to let George Karl's offense run wild from start to finish.
Who will win?
Luol Deng will torch Danilo Gallinari's porous defense, and even Carlos Boozer will have a solid game as he fights past the tough defense of second-year man Kenneth Faried. Gallinari and Ty Lawson will do all they can to keep the score close, but it won't be enough against the Bulls defense.
Nate Robinson will once again be in full point guard mode and be a force on both sides of the floor. He will drive the lane, sink threes, pass the ball to open teammates and even come away with some steals. If fans are lucky, they'll get to see one of his legendary dunks, which are always incredible to see from someone just 5'9".
In a hard-fought battle from start to finish, the Bulls will pull away in the fourth quarter and snap Denver's winning streak. It will be a tough finish, but defense will prevail as the Bulls prep themselves for a championship run upon Rose's return.
Chicago Bulls 100, Denver Nuggets 95