You have to love the phrase "a possible playoff preview" this late in the season. That term accurately describes Thursday night's matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets.
The Bulls are just one game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. If they surpass Atlanta, they would be in line for a first-round matchup with the Nets.
That said, the Nets are just one game ahead of Atlanta, so there are still a ton of things that could happen to switch the seedings around. However, this would be an intriguing first-round series.
On paper it would appear that the Nets should have an advantage, but the Bulls have taken two of three from them this season.
All three games have been relatively close, though.
The Bulls got 19 points from Marco Belinelli—including the game-winning layup—in the first meeting in December. He was one of four Bulls in double figures as they eeked out an 83-82 victory over the Nets at United Center.
The Nets got some revenge in February when they won 93-89 at the Barclays Center behind 20 points from Brook Lopez.
In the most recent battle, the Bulls' frontcourt was the major difference. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds to help hand the Nets a 95-86 loss in Chicago.
This time the scene shifts back to Brooklyn, and the Nets will be looking to salvage a split with the Bulls in the season series.
Here's how you can watch.
When: Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Bulls Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
- Marco Belinelli, SG—Abdomen—Questionable for April 4 at Brooklyn
- Joakim Noah, C—Foot—Questionable for April 4 at Brooklyn
- Derrick Rose, PG—Knee—Out until at least early April
- Taj Gibson, PF—Knee—Questionable for April 4 at Brooklyn
- Richard Hamilton, SG—Back—Out until at least early April
The Bulls' injuries have been one of the biggest stories of the NBA season. Obviously, the absence of Rose leads the discussion, but even aside from him, the players have spent as much time in suits as they have in uniform.
No one knows when Rose will return, no one cares when or if Hamilton returns to the lineup, but now Gibson's knee injury is the latest concern.
K.C. Johnson of Chicago Tribune tweeted:
K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop
Gibson on MCL sprain: "It feels the same as when I hurt it the first time." Gibson missed 10 games with that injury.4/3/2013, 2:25:18 AM
It is amazing the Bulls have a found a way to remain competitive through all this.
Nets Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
The Bulls have been ravaged by injuries all season, but the Nets have a few injuries they must manage as well heading into this game. Two key Nets are nursing foot injuries:
- Joe Johnson, SG—Heel—Out for April 3 at Cleveland
- Gerald Wallace, SF—Foot—Questionable for April 3 at Cleveland
Johnson hasn't played since March 23, but per Barbara Barker of Long Island Newsday, he hasn't ruled out returning against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday; he isn't keen on returning to play back-to-back games, however.
Obviously, the Bulls game would be more appealing, so we'll see if he gives it a go.
Wallace has been playing through pain for a while (NY Daily News), but many have been unrelenting in their criticism of the small forward (Rant Sports). Even NBA 2K13 has dropped his rating three points in the latest roster update (NBA 2K4Life).
Despite the pain and criticism, I wouldn't bet on him missing the Bulls game on Thursday.
PG - Kirk Hinrich
SG - Jimmy Butler
SF - Luol Deng
PF - Carlos Boozer
C - Nazr Mohammed
PG - Deron Williams
SG - Joe Johnson
SF - Gerald Wallace
PF - Reggie Evans
C - Brook Lopez
How Good Are the Rose-less Bulls?
One might argue the Bulls would be among the best teams in the NBA if Rose were playing. Some may even believe they have a shot to knock off the Miami Heat if their star were active.
The fact is he's not, and it is beginning to look more and more like he won't be back this season.
The question is, just how good can this team be without him? Success in the regular season is one thing, but once the playoffs start, the action and intensity goes to the next level.
We saw the Bulls wilt against the Philadelphia 76ers in last year's playoffs after Rose went down.
With the postseason approaching, games like this between playoff teams come close to playoff-like atmospheres. This could be an indication as to how ready the Bulls are for the postseason.
If the Nets Can't Handle the Short-Handed Bulls at Home, What Does That Say About Them Long Term?
With so many Bulls on the shelf or at least hobbled, most would suspect the Nets should be able to handle them at home.
But the Bulls have been competitive against just about every team they have faced this season, no matter what lineup Tom Thibodeau has courted.
With all of the players listed above absent—sans Gibson—the Bulls knocked off the red-hot Heat to end their 27-game win streak.
The Nets are at home, but this won't be an easy win.
Interesting Stat: 15-10—Bulls Record Against Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
Despite all the injuries, the Bulls have held their own against teams headed for the playoffs in their conference. They are five games over .500 against teams they could see in the postseason.
Key Matchup: Jimmy Butler vs. Joe Johnson
Obviously, if Johnson doesn't play, this will be a little different, but in any case, the Bulls really need Butler to step up.
He has shown flashes, but there needs to be more consistency. He has an opportunity to seize the shooting guard spot because of his ability to contribute on both ends.
If he can hold his own against Johnson in a marquee matchup like this, it will say a lot for him.
Johnson must prevent Butler from being the X-factor that spurs the Bulls to a tough road win.
These Bulls play to the level of their competition.
They get up for huge games like the last meeting with the Heat and then dip down in level against teams like the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards—whom they lost to on Tuesday.
I believe they step up to win this tough game on the road and further cloud our perception of this injury-stricken bunch.
Follow me, because I watch more basketball than anyone should admit.