The race for the Central Division crown has turned into a battle between three teams, and two of them face off tonight. The Chicago Bulls will face the Milwaukee Bucks for the third time this season and hope to come away with their fourth straight win and fifth in their last six games.
For Milwaukee, it will be the continuation of what has thus far been an eventful week. Scott Skiles stepped down as head coach on January 7 after he and team management agreed to mutually part ways, and assistant Jim Boylan was named interim coach for the remainder of the season.
The Bucks were on a four-game losing streak when this news broke, but Boylan struck a chord in his first game in charge, on January 8 against the Phoenix Suns. The team came away with a 108-99 victory thanks to 29 points and nine assists from Brandon Jennings.
Not to say that this is the start of a hot streak for Milwaukee, but Chicago should still be careful. The last meeting between both teams was legendary in its own right, and the Bulls definitely do not want a repeat occurrence of that.
Expect this game to have the intensity of a playoff series, as it is a battle not only for a win, but for standing in the division.
Time: Wednesday, January 9th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Chicago, FSN Wisconsin
Records: Milwaukee Bucks (17-16) vs. Chicago Bulls (19-13)
Betting Line: Milwaukee (+6), Chicago (-6)
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Kirk Hinrich (elbow, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Will History Repeat Itself in the Windy City?
As was mentioned before, the last time the Bulls and Bucks faced off in Chicago was quite a notable game. It took place on November 26, and it was the second half of a home-and-home between both teams.
The game had the makings of another Chicago victory, with the Bulls leading 80-63 at the end of the third quarter. However, Milwaukee had other ideas.
The Bucks overcame that deficit and managed to win 93-92, stunning the Chicago crowd.
Naturally, the Bulls will want to avoid a repeat occurrence of that tonight. They are on a three-game winning streak and have played some fine basketball despite not having star point guard Derrick Rose in the lineup all season. Another bad loss to Milwaukee would not be the worst that could happen, but it wouldn't at all help morale in the locker room.
The Bulls are on the verge of being great again, and blowing another big lead to a seemingly lesser team would take a lot of wind out of the sails, even if Rose managed to return to the lineup for the team's next game. It is thus all the more important that they play their tough defensive game to its fullest extent against the Bucks tonight, as a win would tie them with the Indiana Pacers for first place in the division, and also widen the gap against Milwaukee.
Key Matchup: Larry Sanders vs. Joakim Noah
Besides sharing a division and region of the United States, one thing that the Bulls and Bucks have in common is that their centers are both candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
Joakim Noah has been excellent for Chicago this year, stepping up his effort and then some while Rose is out. He has posted 12.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks to go with 1.4 steals, and he has just been a force in the paint overall. His scoring has not been as consistent, with his current field-goal percentage of 48 being his lowest since his rookie year.
That could be due to the fact that Noah does not have Rose getting him the ball yet, but his offense must be at the top of its game. Milwaukee's Larry Sanders will be covering him, and he has broken out as a defensive monster this season.
A third-year player out of VCU, Sanders has done an excellent job since being penciled in as the Bucks' starting center. He is only averaging eight points and 8.3 rebounds, but his 6'11", 235-pound frame has him leading the NBA with 3.2 blocks per contest.
He is not as experienced a center as Noah, but Sanders needs to have a great game tonight if Milwaukee is to continue winning. He must be aggressive and not be afraid to get physical with his opponent. This means going after every rebound and not being afraid to get fouled.
The fact of the matter is that this is a very winnable game for the Bucks, even though their defense ranks 15th in points allowed compared to that of the Bulls, which ranks third. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are capable of being explosive on offense, and Sanders is the same type of player on defense.
It's just a matter of whether or not his inexperience will catch up with him when Noah looms over him under the basket.
X-Factor: Carlos Boozer
Since leaving Jerry Sloan's flex system in Utah and joining the defense-oriented game of the Chicago Bulls in 2010, Carlos Boozer has been generally disappointing. He has averaged just 16 points and 9.2 rebounds in the Windy City, a far cry from the 19.3 and 10.5 he posted with the Utah Jazz.
Boozer has averaged 15.2 points and 9.6 rebounds this season, but his performance over his last five games is what makes him the most important player against Milwaukee tonight. Through that stretch, the former Blue Devil has averaged 23.2 points and 12 rebounds.
Also in Boozer's favor is that he performed fairly well in the Bulls' previous two games against the Bucks. He had 22 points and 19 rebounds in Milwaukee on November 24, and then had 19 and 11 on November 26.
It's going to be interesting to see which Boozer shows up tonight, since he will likely be guarded by pest extraordinaire Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. As pesky as the former UCLA Bruin is, he is much smaller than Boozer at 6'8", 230 pounds. Boozer stands 6'9" and weighs 266, so he can definitely force Mbah a Moute into a physical game.
He needs to do just that, and not be afraid to be explosive on offense either. He has much more experience than his opponent, in this case, and he needs to be the offensive force Chicago needs in Rose's absence. Luol Deng can help accordingly, but he is already leading the league in minutes per game and cannot be depended on to lead the attack from start to finish.
Boozer must thus channel his former self and lead Chicago to victory, or at least put up a great effort in trying.
The Bucks have the opportunity for a fresh and positive start under Jim Boylan, but they won't get it tonight. Chicago and its rowdy fans are out for blood following that embarrassing loss in November, and the Bulls will deliver tonight.
Larry Sanders will have a decent game, but Joakim Noah will give him a semi-friendly reminder on what it takes to be an elite NBA center. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings will keep Milwaukee in the game with some clutch scoring, but offense alone cannot win a game.
Chicago's defense will thus be in full form tonight. Luol Deng will be as pesky as ever and will also make some key baskets on the offensive side. Rip Hamilton will have a clutch three or two.
Carlos Boozer, however, will be the man of the hour in the Windy City once again. He will take full advantage of the mismatch he has at power forward and have yet another fine game, for once looking like he is worthy of the big contract he signed in 2010.
In doing so, the Bulls will pull away in the fourth quarter of what will otherwise be a fairly close game. Their winning streak will extend to four, and the Bucks will be down, but certainly not out.
Chicago Bulls 104, Milwaukee Bucks 95