While the Bulls are No. 5 in the Eastern Conference and struggling to maintain pace, having lost four of six, the Nuggets have been on a tear. They have won 11 games in a row and have rocketed to the No. 5 spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference thanks to a balance of tough defense combined with a quick and feisty offense.
Seeing as how the Bulls are the worst scoring team in the league, keeping up with Denver could pose a problem. They were already blown out by Denver once this season, at the Pepsi Center on Feb. 7, and beating them at the United Center in front of a rowdy Bulls crowd could give Chicago a great deal of momentum with the regular season entering its final weeks.
This means killing Denver's momentum, which isn't going to be an easy task for any team at home or on the road.
Time: Monday, March 18, 8 p.m. ET
TV: CSN Chicago+, Altitude
Records: Denver Nuggets (45-22) vs. Chicago Bulls (36-29)
Key Storyline: Can Bulls End Nuggets' Streak?
The Bulls rank third in points allowed, but history is not on their side when it comes to beating the Nuggets this season. Chicago visited Denver on Feb. 7, and the results were not pretty by any means.
Thanks to 21 points and 12 rebounds from second-year power forward Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets were in control from start to finish and won a 128-96 massacre. The Bulls were out-rebounded 46-34 and just could not keep up with Denver's offense, their defense no match for head coach George Karl's dribble-drive offense.
But that was in Denver, where the Nuggets have gone an eye-popping 30-3. Round 2 will be in Chicago, and Denver is just 15-19 on the road. The Bulls still have an uphill battle ahead, but having the crowd on their side can definitely give them the momentum they need, especially on defense.
That needs to be the name of the game against Denver, who ranks third in scoring and second in rebounding. So long as just one player can be slowed down, be it Ty Lawson or Faried, the Bulls have a shot at winning.
Otherwise, the Nuggets will be able to run wild in the Windy City.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Kosta Koufos
Kosta Koufos has averaged only 8.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game on the season—but has shot a highly respectable 61 percent from the field, and the seven-footer has been hot as of late.
Over his last five games, he is averaging 12 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting an eye-popping 79 percent from the field. The former Ohio State Buckeye has been lights-out in the paint, and the Nuggets will be relying on him to continue against a tough defensive team in Chicago.
Of course, that means besting a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Joakim Noah, who has been incredible for the Bulls all season long.
The former Gator is averaging 12 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game on the season, showing an aggressive nature in the key not seen from him in previous seasons. This man is committed to defense, with a solid performance on offense being an added bonus.
Noah has also been solid over his last five games, averaging 11.4 points and 13 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks per contest. If the Bulls are to defeat the Nuggets, it is critical that he maintain that type of production.
This means using his experience as a starter to take Koufos to school, as the latter only started seeing extended playing time this season. As solid as he has been for Denver, he still has a long way to go before he is on the same level as Noah.
If his hot streak ends Monday, then a 12th straight win for Denver becomes that much more difficult.
X-Factor: Luol Deng
Chicago is going to need a scorer to lead the way against Denver. Unless Derrick Rose decides to suit up at the last minute, that job is going to belong to Luol Deng. The former Blue Devil has led Chicago with 16.3 points per game this season, plus 6.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals.
Deng has shot only 42.5 percent from the field and 30 percent from long range this season, but his excellent on-ball defense and solid work as a slasher have kept the Bulls in contention all season long. Over his last five games, he has averaged 15 points and 6.2 boards while maintaining his field-goal percentage for the season.
The Bulls will need him to be in full scoring mode against Denver, be it driving to the lane or spotting up for a jumper. The latter isn't his strong suit, but he at least needs to try. The Nuggets overwhelmed Chicago with offense in their first meeting, and that cannot happen again this late in the season.
This means Deng must be near-perfect, lest the Bulls want to have to scramble for a victory.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Andre Iguodala
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Kosta Koufos
PG: Kirk Hinrich
SG: Marco Belinelli
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah
The Bulls would love to beat the Nuggets in Round 2 and split the season series, but it's just not going to happen. Denver has too many go-to guys and is too dangerous on both sides of the floor, and the men that Chicago will be relying on to help them keep up on offense are just too streaky.
As a result, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari will pick and pop Denver's way to victory, with Kenneth Faried having a double-double and just dominating the rebounding department.
Luol Deng will have a solid night for Chicago, but it won't be near enough. Joakim Noah won't be able to stop Kosta Koufos' hot streak, and Carlos Boozer will be...well, Carlos Boozer.
The Nuggets' streak will reach a dozen, and the Bulls will be left wondering just how to get things right in time for the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets 113, Chicago Bulls 97
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