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Bulls look to remain above .500 against surging Jazz

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The Bulls face the Jazz in a key game on Saturday.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams fighting for playoff contention will square off Saturday night when the Utah Jazz meet the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.

Ninth-seeded Utah is 33-35 but has been the better team as of late. The Jazz have won four straight games and are coming of a monster 103-69 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

Chicago, on the other hand, is 4-5 since March 1. The Bulls will also be without Pau Gasol(knee) and E'Twaun Moore (hamstring), while Taj Gibson (hamstring) is probable, according to ESPN's Nick Friedell.

Gordon Hayward reportedly went through shootaround, but is listed as questionable for the Jazz, according to The Deseret News' Jody Genessy.

The Jazz are anchored by Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, but the Bulls must keep a close eye on point guard Shelvin Mack. A former teammate of Hayward's at Butler, Mack was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks last month, and since joining Utah he's averaged 12.5 points and 5.3 assists per game. He's also averaging 18.3 points and 8.0 assists during the team's four-game winning streak.

Utah also boasts one of the best defenses in the league. The Jazz are second in opponent points per game (96.7) and opponent field goal attempts per game (79.9). However, they rank just 10th in point differential (+1.3), primarily because they average only 98.0 points per game, third-worst in the NBA.

The Bulls will be shorthanded once again, and because of Utah's defensive superiority, they cannot afford to fall behind early. It will be important for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to get in rhythm and for Doug McDermott to continue his excellent play. The second-year forward and former Creighton star has scored over 20 points in each of his last three games, and since Feb. 1 he's averaging 14.0 points per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from 3-point range.

The rise of McDermott in the absence of the Bulls' stars can best be attributed to an increase in the young shooter's confidence. As Friedell wrote on March 10, McDermott has been trying to focus more on his game and less on himself.

"I'm my biggest critic," McDermott said. "I'm really hard on myself. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. I think in college it's a good thing because you have a week between your next game. In the NBA, you have a game, and then you have another game the next day. So if you're constantly down on yourself, being mad about a play the night before, it's going to affect the way you play the next night. So I kind of just let some things go, focus on the moment and just keep moving forward.

McDermott's presence at the small forward position as certainly been felt, especially since Mike Dunleavy Jr. hasn't gotten into much rhythm after recovering from offseason back surgery. The veteran is averaging just 8.3 points per game while taking just under seven shots per game.

Another young player who's stepping up is Brazilian big man Cristiano Felicio, who will continue to get minutes in the absence of Gasol, Joakim Noah (shoulder) and Cameron Bairstow (back). The 6-foot-10-inch, 275-pounder may not be much of an offensive presence, but he grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked two shots in the Bulls' 118-102 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. He also has a considerable size advantage overTrey Lyles and Trevor Booker, giving the Bulls' second unit a mismatch opportunity in the paint.

Favors and Gobert form one of the league's best defensive duos down low, and without Gasol to provide a formidable post presence, the Bulls will need to shoot the ball well from the perimeter if they hope to win. They also cannot allow Utah to set their defense, meaning they must get out and run whenever possible. If Rose and Butler can get out in transition, and the Bulls' shooters rise to the occasion, the team has a good chance of defending it's home court and moving one step closer to a playoff berth.