The Chicago Bulls have won four of five, and their stingy defense gets a shot at revenge tonight. The team hosts the Memphis Grizzlies, a Western Conference squad that inches closer and closer to powerhouse status with each passing season.
Both teams rank second and third in defense, respectively, and Chicago will be seeking to avenge a loss at FedEx Forum from December 17. The Bulls could very well get it, what with Memphis having lost three of four. The Grizzlies have gone 10-8 on the road, so that also works in the Bulls' favor.
However, Memphis cannot be counted out. They put on quite the defensive show the last time they faced Chicago, and the Bulls may be running out of momentum following consecutive overtime wins on the road.
That still doesn't take away from the fact that the Bulls are out for a season series split, and coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive approach plus a rowdy Chicago crowd will provide them with plenty of extra bounce in their step. It's going to be a close game, and the Bulls will step up their effort in hopes of coming away with a gutsy home win that extends their winning streak to four.
Time: Saturday, January 19th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: WGN, WGN America, SportSouth
Records: Memphis Grizzlies (25-13) vs. Chicago Bulls (23-15)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, January 19, 8:27 a.m. EST
Injuries: Derrick Rose (knee, out), Luol Deng (hamstring, day-to-day), Quincy Pondexter (knee, out), Zach Randolph (back, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Bulls Avenge Earlier Loss Despite Home Woes?
The Bulls last faced the Grizzlies on December 17, in Memphis, and there is just one word to describe the game: defense. Memphis was in full control, defeating Chicago 80-71 despite scoring just 11 points in the first quarter.
The defense took over from there. The Bulls shot just 18 percent from three-point range and were out-rebounded 51-39. Point guard Mike Conley led the Grizzlies with 17 points, and Zach Randolph chipped in 10 points with 15 boards. On the Bulls' end, Carlos Boozer led with 16 points and 13 boards.
Sure enough, Chicago will want to put in a better performance tonight. They will be at home and have the fans on their side, but that alone may not be enough.
Ironically, the Bulls have performed better on the road this season. They are 12-5 away from the United Center, but just 11-10 on their home court. Memphis has gone 10-8 on the road, and that could help Chicago, but it is still a stat that cannot be ignored.
The team just needs to have a set plan against this tough defensive team, refusing to put up as dismal an offensive performance as it did in December. Head coach Tom Thibodeau likely has had everyone watching tape of the loss, pointing out exactly what went wrong and what must be fixed tonight.
No matter what the approach, however, it's still going to be an incredibly close game, one that may even result in a third straight trip to overtime for the feisty Bulls.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Marc Gasol
This game is going to be all about defense, and that starts at the 5 for both teams. Joakim Noah has done an excellent job manning the middle for the Bulls and is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. The former Florida Gator has posted 12.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and two blocks per game, and has not missed a single game due to injury.
However, he will be in for a hard battle against Memphis' Marc Gasol. Noah has good size at 6'11", 232 pounds, but Gasol is an absolute beast of a man at 7'1", 265 pounds. On the season, the burly Spaniard has averaged 13.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
The first time they faced each other this year, Noah managed to hold Gasol to four points. However, he was out-rebounded 14-9.
Noah did not have a bad game against Memphis, as he also had 11 points, but he definitely needs to be more aggressive in the paint this time around. If at all possible, he must force Gasol out of his usual high-post game and into the low-post.
This could prove to be tough, as Memphis' system is specific to using Gasol in a certain area, but Noah must follow his man wherever he goes. Long story short, he cannot give Gasol any opportunities. Double-double threat Zach Randolph may miss this game with a bad back, and if Gasol cannot pick up much of the slack on defense, thanks to being guarded by Noah, then the game immediately shifts in Chicago's favor.
X-Factor: Carlos Boozer
During the Bulls' recent hot streak, the man of the hour has been Carlos Boozer. After signing a max-level contract with Chicago in 2010, the former Blue Devil is starting to look like the star the team thought it was getting.
Boozer has posted respectable averages of 16.2 points and 10 rebounds on the season, but his production over his last five games is what catches the eye. Over that stretch, he has averaged 21.4 points go with 12.2 rebounds. In the month of January alone, Boozer has averaged 23.4 points to go with 11 boards.
Against Memphis, he must continue to be great. With Zach Randolph potentially out due to a back strain, he will be in a prime position to put up some incredible numbers. Keep in mind that this is the man who just pulled down 20 rebounds against the Boston Celtics, and there doesn't appear to be any way to stop him.
Boozer's hot streak has been especially refreshing to Bulls fans. Over the first two years of his contract, he was anything but the double-double monster he had been for the Utah Jazz.
Now, for some reason or another, the Boozer of old is back, and the Bulls need him to keep in form against tough Memphis.
Whatever the Bulls are doing now, it's obviously working. The defense is running on all cylinders, and the offense has continued to unite as one despite the fact that star point guard Derrick Rose still has not returned from his ACL injury.
As a result, in a game that will be a dogfight from start to finish, Chicago will narrowly defeat Memphis and obtain its fourth straight victory. The team will not pull away until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point the loud fans will give them enough momentum at their backs to push them forward and cross the finish line ahead of Memphis.
Boozer will have another excellent game, making the fans excited as to what he'll be able to do once Rose is back at the point. Noah and Gasol will battle to a stalemate, though Noah will continue to prove just why he is the game's best defensive center this season.
On Memphis' end, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay will be relied upon to contribute most of the offense. Gay has played well as of late, and Conley will get over his recent shooting struggles (35 percent from the field his last five games) to sink some key threes and, on defense, come away with some important steals.
Unfortunately, Memphis just does not have the same amount of depth Chicago does, and that is what will sink them tonight. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli will come off the bench and provide some clutch offense which, combined with an impressive output from the starters, will carry the Bulls to victory.
Chicago Bulls 94, Memphis Grizzlies 91
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Friday, January 19, 2013