[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview. This'll be the game thread as well. -yfbb]
Today at noon, following a frustrating slide where our Bulls (29-16) lost 6 out of 8 games and confidence in Thibs wavered, a newly resurgent Chicago squad faces an up-and-down Miami Heat team (19-24) that finds itself in the Eastern Conference's 7-seed for now, but is by no means clear of falling out of the playoff picture. Miami, Charlotte -- now the 8-seed with a stellar record of... 19-26 (ladies and gentlemen, THE EASTERN CONFERENCE) -- Brooklyn, Detroit (RIP, the Josh Smith As An NBA Starter Era), the Pacers, Boston (!) AND Jacque Vaughn's Orlando Magic all have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. I do think Miami makes it, barring some horrible knee injury to Wade. But missing the whole damn show in April is really in play. Kind of wild, ain't it?
Granted, since the Bulls are facing a Heat team featuring a front court rotation of the perimeter-friendly Chris Bosh; the really, really old Chris "Birdman" Andersen, and the really, really washed-up Udonis Haslem, I don't think our bigs will have any issue in manhandling these fools en route to our third straight W. Had the Heat had young, athletic scrap-heap revelation Hassan Whiteside in the line-up tonight, it could have been another story: newly-minted Eastern Conference All-Star Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson have really struggled containing non-finesse bigs over the past month or so, and Nikola Mirotic has shot his way out of the rotation after looking so bad-ass in Chicago's first two months.
So in addition to the complete absence of big free agent acquisition Josh McRoberts (out for the season with a torn ligament in his right knee) and the probably absence of the newly-good Whiteside (questionable for today with a sprained right ankle) from the proceedings, apparently Deng has been handling a "nasty illness" over the past few days and D-Wade has been battling a recent string of migraine headaches, according to NBA.com. One of the few bright spots in the 19-24 Miami Heat's current NBA season (aside from an initial hot start) has been the emergence of little-heralded 7' Whiteside as a potential future building block (and a nice fantasy hoops waiver wire coup for this Bulls fan), so losing him to an ankle sprain for a few weeks really hurts. It's nice to see that they finally have an old-school center who can really body dudes up down low. Too bad it comes the season AFTER LBJ skips town but, you know, oh well. For the season, the 25 year-old Whiteside is averaging 7.1 points and 5.4 boards on the season. In expanded play across seven games prior to suffering the ankle injury against the Thunder, however, Whiteside was posting averages of 12.43 points and 8.8 rebounds per.
A few notes on the Heat this season: while they've failed to live up to many prognosticators' expectations, I have to say their performance thus far has been right in line with where I thought they would be. They still run Erik Spoelstra's pace-and-space offense, but their off-season went a long way towards correcting their biggest problem last year: a crippling lack of depth and athleticism. The hard-switching defense of the Super Friends era is no longer particularly tenable or effective within the confines of their current pieces. Whiteside's emergence has helped offset this a bit, but they still need a legitimate back-up wing for the 33 year-old Wade and the old-29 Deng (he's in his 11th season this year), and a MASSIVE point guard upgrade. Spo has alternated between starting Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, and rookie Shabazz Napier has struggled mightily to stick in the rotation over the past month. Deng and McRoberts were nice pieces to grab in the off-season, sure, but Danny Granger as the third wing was an insane decision considering what happened in Clipperland with him last season. With an aging core of Bosh (who's 30), Wade and Deng for these next two seasons, the Heat are stuck in a hellish no man's land until they address these glaring roster holes. And they don't even have their own first round draft pick this season!
A few thoughts on the Bulls' recent turnaround: do I need to spell it out for you? We've still got defensive issues with our rim protection in certain match-ups this year (let's just say I'd much rather face the Spurs than the Grizzlies in the Finals) and JoNo still isn't right, but there are is at least one silver lining to be excited about for Bulls fans in the NBA's January dregs. While we continue to await Mike Dunleavy Jr.'s return from that pesky right ankle sprain, Thibs has finally put the kibosh on Kirk-as-a-starter (sadly, he got two more minutes than Aaron Brooks in the Mavs game, but whatever) and bringing in Tony Snell, who at least can defend the faster 2's and get to the rack on a regular basis. It'd be nice to see McDermott out there a bit too in addition to Snell, if only to off-set some of Team MVP (and 2014-15 league minutes leader) Jimmy Butler's minutes burden, but if Thibs doesn't think he can give us anything, and Thibs was somehow able to make Tony Snell a useful NBA player, I must defer. The race for the East's 1-seed is still very much on, despite the Hawks' recent regular-season greatness (15 victories in a row and counting), and every win will be crucial for the Bulls. Chicago is currently seeded 4th, mere percentage points behind the 29-15 Wizards and 28-15 Raptors. Atlanta is 36-8 right now, but at some point you'd have to expect them to grapple with injury issues outside of Horford.
This game, Deng's first return to the UC wearing the former Evil Empire's laundry, could very well be a first-round match-up preview. And what sweet, sweet vengeance that would prove to be: we beat the Heat 93-75 IN MIAMI in our previous match-up this season behind a stellar night from MDJ (22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 4 boards, 2 assists and 2 blocks, all in a smidge less than 30 minutes), and despite the absence of Dunleavy tonight to exploit the Heat's issues on the wing, I fully expect an encore performance tonight.
I don't think there's any way we lose this game.
Tip at 12 PM CST/1 EST on ABC/ESPN-AM 1000.
11:05 AM UPDATE - Whiteside will play! This could throw a wrench in my whole prognosis.