[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
Two overachieving mid-tier Eastern Conference teams that will almost certainly finish somewhere in the 3/4/5/6-seed range this season, the Atlanta Hawks and your Chicago Bulls, square off at the UC in what could very possibly be a first-round playoff preview. If the playoffs began today, the Bulls, who share an identical record with the Washington Wizards (25-25), would be slotted 6th in the East, and would thus face off against the Toronto Raptors (the current 3-seed at 27-24). The Hawks, the current 4-seed at 25-24, would have home court advantage against the Wiz (who currently hold a 1-0 edge over the Bulls and thus would win the tiebreaker if the playoffs started today). Point being, there is going to be a LOT of movement amongst this middle group of mediocre teams -- the Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Bulls and Nets. Personally, this fan thinks Charlotte is going to be duking it out with Detroit and possibly New York for that final playoff spot, and has virtually no chance at getting any higher than the 8-seed with its personnel, which is basically just Al Jefferson.
PG - Jeff Teague - New Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer has been able to elevate The Good Teague Brother's game to a new level this season, as he's averaging career highs in points (15.8) and assists (7.3), while shooting 13.4 field goals a game. I remember when he was a raw young buck behind Captain Kirk in 2010-11, and at the start of the second round of the 2011 playoffs Kirk went down (shocker, I know), and Teague had to step up. And step up he did, averaging 14.8 points and 4.2 assists (he had averaged 5.2 points and 2 assists in 13.8 minutes over the course of the regular season) helping the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith-Al Horford Hawks put a scare into the upstart 1-seeded Bulls before we took them out in six games.
SG - Kyle Korver - Korver's unbelievable streak for 3-pointers made in consecutive games has now hit 118 games (meaning his hot streak is about as hot as this), eclipsing the prior record holder, Dana Barros, by 29 games (29 games!). But, you know, all good things must come to an end. If you don't think Tom Thibodeau is specifically game-planning against Korver extending the streak tonight, then you, like me, thought that Thibodeau's one-note claim that these Bulls had "more than enough to win with" after the Rose injury and the Deng trade was all just so much noise. Korver has been an absolute ace on offense this season, shooting 46.3% from three this season on 5.7 attempts a game and 47.9% from the field.
SF - DeMarre Carroll - The Hawks' unheralded starting small forward, Carroll fulfills a role very similar to what DeShawn Stevenson did for the Dallas Mavericks title team of 2011 (and not just because both their names start with De-): he is a defensive player first, and an athletic slasher on offense. In his first season as a full-time starter, the 27 year-old, 218-pound 6'8" forward out of Mizzou has been averaging 10.4 points (shooting 47.3% from the field), 5.6 boards (including a very-good-for-his-position 4.2 defensive rebounds), 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks and 1.9 dimes. Here's the real digit that you know is good news: 2.5 personal fouls a game in 31.1 minutes of game action -- for a wing, this is a fairly large number (the team leader is their best player, Paul Millsap, who plays at a position that by its very nature is prone to incurring way more foul calls).
PF - Paul Millsap - The only positive wrinkle since the Horford injury is first-time All-Star Paul Millsap's inaugural season with the team, where he is at or near his career best across several of the big categories - points (17.7, a career-best), rebounds (8.4, 3rd-highest output in his career), assists (3.0 - a career-best). He is also being used far more in this Hawks offense than he ever has before, averaging 14.1 field goals a game; and though this may be partially due to circumstance (Al Horford going down in late December for the year), he has taken full advantage and fully deserves his All-Star berth for the surprisingly resilient Hawks.
C - Gustavo Ayon - Ayon has been a competent fill-in at center, but could never hope to replicate the production of the Hawks' two-time All-Star and all-around best player this season (before he went down), Al Horford. Ayon (16.2 minutes per game) and Elton Brand (15.4 minutes per) essentially tag-team the center position, but the Mexican-born Ayon gets the starting nod because he's, you know, six years younger. He's averaging 3.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in his time on the floor, which per 36 minutes translates to a solid 8.6 points and 10.2 boards, but is only in his third NBA season (second full season) since being bought out of his contract with Spanish club Baloncesto Fuenlabrada by New Orleans in 2012. At 6'10" and 250, Ayon right now is basically a big body who can give you six fouls and clog up the restricted area.
Key Bench Player
PG/SG - Lou Williams - Williams is still rounding into form since returning from an ACL tear last season. Okay, fine, I'm being generous. Williams is pretty undersized when he is switched over to the 2-guard spot. At 6'2" and 175 pounds, he is better suited to a back-up PG role, though a lot of times he plays off the ball for Budenholzer (he is still averaging 3.6 assists a game), and although he is still shooting OK from three (a bit higher than the league average at 36.7%), his field goal percentage has fallen off a cliff since his return (down almost 5% from last season, from 42.2% to its current 37.5%). Tallying 9.4 points a game (his lowest output since the 2006-07 season), he is the Hawks' only consistent scoring threat from outside ten feet off the bench right now, however, and still gets some run at 23.4 minutes per. Here's hoping that Williams, still only 27, eventually bounces back to where he was pre-injury.
Overall Performance Outlook: In our first game back at home since a consistently inconsistent road trip, I think the Bulls will be able to hold off the Hawks, provided we can contain their starters' offense. The Bulls will have six good players available (I'm sorry, I just can't count Kirk, and Boozer is still listed as questionable for tonight with his strained left calf), but the Hawks only have four (sorry Gustavo Ayon). How these two teams' coaches have been able to wring 25 wins out of these rosters at this point in the season is pretty remarkable -- though Millsap and Noah are pretty damn good, so I guess it starts with them. Anyway, the match-up, time off, and the fact that we're playing at home (the Bulls boast a so-so 13-10 home record, but the Hawks to this point can only claim a somewhat paltry 9-15 road record) all play into the Bulls' favor tonight.
Random Thought: The return of the original Hot Sauce to the United Center gets me thinking... Which Bench Mob Bulls player does this team miss the most right now, by need? I'm counting all prior Thibodeau Bench Mobs in this group, by the way. I'd say...
1. Marco Bellinelli (Spaghetti Sauce) because he is shooting lights-out from three (44.6%, and a fantastic-for-a-guard 50.3% from the field), AND can cut to the basket plus create more off the dribble than Korver
2. Asik (the Turkish Delight) since we have no frontcourt depth outside of Noah/Boozer/Taj (Nazr doesn't count, I'm sorry)
3. Nate Robinson (Mouse in the House...if he wasn't out for the year with an ACL tear, obviously) for his shooting and athleticism to supplant Kirk Hinrich as the back-up PG (Augustin would win the starting slot because he plays more in control and is taller, but they'd essentially split the minutes)
4. Korver since we only have two consistently good shooters from range (Dunleavy and Augustin)
5. Ronnie Brewer (he didn't really get a nickname because he was outplayed by Keith Bogans his first year with the Bulls) fifth to give us an athletic defensive wing who could spot Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy a bit at a competitive price.
Tip at 7:00 PM CST/8 EST on Comcast Sports Net/ESPN-AM 1000.