[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
Tonight, in the only game left on the NBA's docket preceding the extended All-Star break (games resume February 19th!), the 3rd-seeded Chicago Bulls (33-20) face off for the third time this season over the East's most dangerous squad, LeBron James's 4th-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (33-21). Yes, the Atlanta Hawks (43-11) have been on fire much of this season (although they just got beat by the lottery-bound Boston Celtics on an Evan Turner buzzer beat last night), but pound-for-pound, in terms of talent, Cleveland has the edge over everybody else. Chicago is looking to build off the momentum of winning three in a row and finally rounding into shape on defense. Following the two-week James sabbatical that started in December and in two separate deals yielded Timofey Mozgov, a reinvigorated J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert in exchange for Dion Waiters and some draft picks, the Cavs have been rolling, winning 14 of their last 15 games, including 12 straight. Every win matters with these squads (Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington) all bunched so close together in the standings, so it'd be great to see the Bulls grab their first victory against Cleveland, after a ceding a Halloween overtime heart breaker and a lopsided blowout in January.
But that's no small task, made worse now that newly-minted All-Star Jimmy Butler is out tonight. He is our best player by a decent margin, a fantastic two-way stud at a position of need in the league, averaging 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 46.1% from the field and 83.4% from the charity stripe on a stellar 7.4 free-throw attempts per. He is also our best wing defender by a mile, so losing him would be a big blow tonight. I'd imagine Mike Dunleavy Jr. (great to see him back, by the way) now draws the defensive assignment to start against LeBron, but with a minutes restriction we can expect a good amount of Tony Snell-O-Vision out there tonight trying to stop the King. Kirk is, once again, mercifully out with a turf toe injury. With Butler and Kirk out, you'd think Doug McDermott would get a little run, especially considering he's looked good in limited time during the Bulls' last two blowout victories (against Sacramento at home on Tuesday in 1:06 of playing time and against New Orleans on Saturday in NOLA). It would also be nice to see Nikola Mirotic out there at the 3 and 4 tonight. He's a Kukoc-esque passer and his shooting stroke needs a coach's confidence to get back on track.
The Cavs are dealing with a big injury of their own tonight that may greatly abet the Bulls, even sans Butler. Kevin Love left their blowout of LeBron's ex-Super Friends with a bruised right eye, and is also questionable for the showdown at the UC tonight. Love, who has been averaging 17 points, 10.4 boards, and 34.5% 3-point shooting (all significant regressions from his gaudy Minnesota stat line last season), has had a very disappointing season for Cleveland. He has looked lost at times in his expected role, basically Chris Bosh but with more touches and way less defense. His shooting has been far more erratic and he has been sat in the fourth because he just cannot stay in front of people (and can't protect the rim). The addition of a 7'1" true center in Mozgov, following Anderson Varejao's (seemingly annual) season-ending injury and the fact that Tristan Thompson really functions best as a third big toggling between the 4 and 5 slots, has been a HUGE coup for Cleveland. The floor spacing that J.R. Smith has added (shooting 36.1% from three), plus the shooting and wing defense of Shump (shooting 44.1% from deep and averaging 1.5 steals a game) have been wonderful supplements to Cleveland's new-found swagger, but Mozgov is the key, especially with K-Love out or limited tonight.
The Bulls should throw Joakim Noah at Mozgov early and force him into foul trouble. If Pau Gasol sees any meaningful time matched up with Mozgov, that could get embarrassing for us in a hurry. The kid is mobile and massive, two things our lanky Spaniard center has had trouble handling this year. The enigma that is Tony Snell could have a great game, like he did on Tuesday (shooting lights-out to get to a career high of 24 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the floor), or a donut. But at least it won't be a DNP. Snell definitely looks like a legitimate NBA player, which is more credit than I would have given him two months ago. His development has made Dougie McBuckets' stagnation a bit easier to bear. Noah and Rose are quietly looking better than they have all season over the last few weeks, with Noah hustling and grabbing boards again, and Rose controlling his turnovers and curbing his wild shots. For the season, their averages are still a bit disappointing (7.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.5 dimes per game for JoNo; 18.7 points, 5 assists and 3 boards for D-Rose), but they're finally passing the eye test, and it couldn't come at a better time.
Also, did you know LeBron had comedy chops? Neither did I. But why is he playing Bill Hader's best friend? He's easily the funniest thing in this otherwise pretty rote (and white) Apatow trailer. I want to see him in "Space Jam 2: The New Batch." Or, even better, I want to see Joakim Noah in "Space Jam 2: Electric Boogaloo." He's got some thespian skills himself you know. ALSO, I'm going to this game (100-level seats!) and could not be more excited to finally see LBJ, Kyrie and hopefully K-Love in the flesh. I will be repping my Bulls swag hard, let me tell you.
Final prognosis: I say we win it tonight. Fuck it. We'll let LeBron get his and contain everyone else; expect big games for Rose and Pau, plus a lot of defensive moxie courtesy of Taj and Jo.
Tip at 7 PM CST on TNT/ESPN-AM 1000.