The Chicago Bulls have been in something of a funk lately, and they'll have a chance to right the ship on Wednesday night against a team that's in a funk of its own. The Philadelphia 76ers have lost six in a row and are falling further and further out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Moreover, the Bulls can sweep the season series with a win at the United Center. They have beaten the Sixers twice already this season, and beating them again could inject some life into the struggling squad as they aim to climb higher than the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, it's not going to be easy. As good as Chicago's defense is, the scoring has been terrible without the help of star point guard Derrick Rose, and Philadelphia could definitely take advantage of that with dynamic players who are capable of scoring in bunches.
Throw in that the game is on national television, and the adrenaline factor only grows. Fans live for this type of intensity, and everyone should definitely tune in.
Time: Thursday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m. EST
Records: Philadelphia 76ers (22-33) vs. Chicago Bulls (32-25)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, Feb. 27, 9:27 a.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Taj Gibson (knee, out), Andrew Bynum (knee, out), Jason Richardson (knee, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Sixers Break Losing Streak in Windy City?
As was previously mentioned, the Sixers have lost six games in a row, and a loss in Chicago would mean the Bulls sweeping the season series. Philly can definitely take advantage of the Bulls' scoring woes, but history is not on their side this year.
The teams first met on Dec. 1 at the United Center. It was a close game from start to finish, but Chicago out-rebounded Philadelphia 50-37 and won the game by a score of 99-83 on the back of 25 points from Luol Deng and a combined 25 boards from Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Not even 23 points from Jrue Holiday could swing the pendulum in the Sixers' favor.
They met again at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 12, and Philadelphia actually led after the first quarter. Sadly, Chicago took over and went on to win 96-89. The Sixers shot just 14 percent from downtown and fell victim to 21 points, seven boards and three blocks from Joakim Noah.
Philadelphia needs to move past its two previous losses and come out fully focused for this game. Chicago's weaknesses are starting to show, and the young Sixers have the tools to turn it into a tough game for the Bulls.
It's going to be a dogfight from beginning to end, and it will be one that fans would be wise not to miss.
Key Matchup: Luol Deng vs. Evan Turner
The Bulls' scoring ranks 28th in the league, but that hasn't stopped Luol Deng from carrying the team in Rose's absence. The former Blue Devil is averaging 16.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest this season, and he has done a solid job both as a slasher and at creating off the dribble.
He has only posted 15.8 points over his last five games, but that can be attributed to the Bulls being in their funk and unable to right the offensive ship. Against the Sixers, Deng is going to need to be in top form.
This is because he's going to be guarded by third-year forward Evan Turner, who has finally found his niche since being drafted No. 2 overall out of Ohio State in 2010. Now that he's settled into his role as a point forward, he has proven his ability to handle the NBA.
The former Buckeye is averaging just 13.9 points per game, but he has also posted 6.9 rebounds and is shooting a respectable 36 percent from long range. However, he's going to be at something of a disadvantage tonight.
Not only is Turner, at 6'7", two inches shorter than Deng, but his shooting percentage has been off in his last five games. He has averaged 16.8 points over that stretch, but he has shot just 39 percent from the field. He has also failed to make one three-pointer.
This means that against Deng's pesky defense, Turner simply needs to be aggressive in the scoring department. He must drive the lane and draw fouls along with creating off the dribble. More importantly, he cannot be a non-factor from three-point land.
If he can outscore Deng and keep the Bulls forward's scoring to a minimum, then the Sixers definitely have a shot at salvation and getting back on the winning track.
X-Factor: Nate Robinson
The Bulls will need to wake up on offense to have a legitimate shot at defeating Philadelphia, and that means that Nate Robinson needs to break out of his cold streak. The point guard has done a decent job as a bench spark for Chicago this season, averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting 39 percent from long range.
Over his last five games, however, Robinson has been anything but a spark. In fact, one can argue that the flame is out completely.
Robinson has averaged 10 points per contest over his last five games, but he has shot only 31 percent from the field and 24 percent from long range. Those types of numbers will not be acceptable against a Philadelphia 76ers squad that is looking to break a lengthy losing streak.
This means that Robinson needs to be fully locked-in and ready to be more than just a shooter. He must drive the lane while also incorporating his mid-range game. Defensively, he must do his best to slow down his opponent and force turnovers.
Simply put, Robinson needs to be the fiery on-court presence that he has been for his entire career. Yet this time, he needs to have a little extra spunk in his step.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Jrue Holiday
SG: Nick Young
SF: Evan Turner
PF: Thaddeus Young
C: Spencer Hawes
PG: Kirk Hinrich
SG: Rip Hamilton
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah
Chicago has the upper hand in this game, but its scoring woes won't be able to help it against a Philadelphia team that is desperate for a win. As a result, thanks to a point guard's double-double from Jrue Holiday and timely shooting from Nick Young, the Sixers will pull off the upset at the United Center.
Evan Turner will find his offensive groove again, sinking jumpers and playing excellent defense, while Deng will struggle to find his shot all night long. Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes will have their hands full on defense, what with Boozer and Noah fighting them for rebounds left and right, but the Sixers simply wanting it more will give them an edge.
Nate Robinson will have a solid scoring night and lead runs that will help Chicago close the gap and even take the lead at some points, but it won't be enough.
This game belongs to Philadelphia, and all that the Chicago fans will be able to do is watch stunned as their team gets handled on national television.
Final Score Prediction: Philadelphia 76ers 95, Chicago Bulls 90