As much as they hoped to avoid it, the Charlotte Bobcats are starting to look just as bad as they did last season. Following a 7-5 start, the team has lost 18 games in a row under first-year coach Mike Dunlap.
Breaking that losing streak won't be any easier today. Young Charlotte heads to the United Center to take on the Chicago Bulls, who have played some excellent basketball despite star point guard Derrick Rose still recovering from an ACL injury.
Chicago is currently tied with the Indiana Pacers for first place in the Central Division and has relied on consistently tough defense to win this season. Players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have also done a great job of stepping up on both sides of the floor and carrying the team to its current standing.
Today's game seems like just another opponent for the Bulls, but the Bobcats will be desperate to play spoiler. Nobody associated with the team wants to see 18 become 19, and just one win could be enough to start the right type of streak.
Of course, with a crowd of rowdy Bulls fans working against them, that is easier said than done.
Time: Monday, December 31st, 3:00 p.m. EST
TV: WGN, WGN America, SportSouth Charlotte
Records: Charlotte Bobcats (7-23) vs. Chicago Bulls (16-12)
Betting Lines: Charlotte (+11.5), Chicago (-11.5)
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Tyrus Thomas (calf, out), Byron Mullens (ankle, out)
Key Storyline: Can Slumping 'Cats Break Losing Streak Against Charging Toros?
As bad as Charlotte has looked during its losing streak, the team as a whole has not been that bad. Second-year point guard Kemba Walker has showed tremendous growth and improvement since his rookie season, and he's slowly turning into the team's unquestioned leader on offense.
On the season, Walker is averaging 18.1 points, six assists and 1.8 steals per game, all career bests. He will need to be ready to take complete control on offense and score a great number of points while also playing some lockdown defense.
Against Chicago, however, this will not be an easy task. The Bulls have one of the league's best defenses, ranking third in points allowed and 12th in rebounding. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah control the defense with iron will, and that's not going to bode well for a young and inexperienced Charlotte team.
Long story short, Charlotte is just going to have to want the win more. Dunlap will need to rally his troops for an upset victory against the steel defense of Tom Thibodeau, and the team will just have to overcome its collective inexperience to attempt to bring home a win.
This should provide for a great game if everyone is focused and make the Bulls sweat just a little bit.
Key Matchup: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist vs. Luol Deng
Matchups are not likely to play a key role in today's game, but this one should still be a good one to watch. Deng has been the Bulls' best pest for many years, and he has emerged as the alpha dog in Rose's absence.
On the season, the former Blue Devil has averaged 17.5 points, seven rebounds and just under a steal per game, and he also leads the NBA with 40.4 minutes per contest.
Deng's job today will be to slow down a speedy rookie in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who despite smaller averages this season appears to be a star in the making. The former Kentucky Wildcat was taken with the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, and has spent the entire season as Charlotte's starting small forward.
Kidd-Gilchrist has averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a rookie, and has also shot 51 percent from the field. This is because, as his shot chart indicates, his jump shot is borderline nonexistent. The man thrives on driving to the basket and drawing fouls, and only breaks out the jumper when he absolutely has to.
Deng's mission is simple: Shut down the rookie. Kidd-Gilchrist is coming off a game in which he scored 22 points and pulled down nine rebounds against the New Orleans Hornets, so his ability to take control on offense needs to be taken out of the game.
Fortunately for Chicago, Kidd-Gilchrist is the youngest player in the league and still has a lot to learn about playing his position. Unless his jumper is suddenly on fire, he will likely be a non-factor and Deng will be able to completely shut him down.
If he can get past Deng's defense, however, the game will become a different type of story.
X-Factor: Bismack Biyombo
The Bobcats' greatest weakness during their losing streak has been their defense. The team ranks last in points allowed, with 104.5 per game, and their young frontcourt hasn't helped matters in the quest to break the losing streak.
Fortunately, that could change today. Chicago ranks 27th in points scored at just 92.7 per game, which means that Bobcats center Bismack Biyombo could be in line for a good game.
Biyombo is only 20 years old and does not have much size at 6'8", 245 pounds. His offensive game is also raw, but his defense has the potential to become borderline dominant. On the season, he is averaging 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
Biyombo's performance over his last five games has been respectable, too. He has averaged eight boards during that stretch, so he could be on a hot streak entering this game.
He won't have an easy time in the paint, what with Bulls center Joakim Noah being a dominant force at center too, but Biyombo needs to be a fighter and see to it that he performs well tonight. Charlotte cannot win this game without defense, and as the team's best defensive player, Biyombo must be fully focused and ready to keep battling until the final buzzer.
Unfortunately for the Charlotte Bobcats, their futility will not end tonight. The Bulls' defense is just too good and too experienced, and the Bobcats' offense has little to no experience on either side of the floor.
This game will not be a blowout by any means, but will certainly border on one. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah will carry the Bulls on offense, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be shut down after having such a good performance against the Hornets.
Noah will also likely have a double-double, out-dueling Biyombo in the paint from start to finish.
Kemba Walker will do all he can to keep the Bobcats in the game, but he is just one man. Charlotte needs consistency from everybody in order to break out of this funk, but that won't happen against a tough Bulls defense.
As a result, Chicago fans will have plenty of reasons to celebrate tonight. Charlotte, on the other hand, will ring in the new year just wondering how to get out of its slump.
Chicago Bulls 103, Charlotte Bobcats 91