These two teams last faced off in the Windy City on Jan. 21, and the tough defense of the Bulls won out over the Lakers' run-and-gun game. However, things have changed since then.
At long last, the Lakers have fully bought into head coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense and are looking like the championship-caliber team fans thought they were getting this past offseason. Since Feb. 1, Los Angeles is 12-5 and in full communication on the court.
Entering this game, the Lakers are just a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot and could very well be tied for it by tipoff. Chicago, on the other hand, is starting to feel the effects of not having had star point guard Derrick Rose all season. Its offense ranks second to last in the league, and its tough defense will only be able to do so much against a hungry LA squad.
Fans should thus prepare themselves for an epic showdown between two solid NBA teams from two great NBA cities. This is a game that could be close from start to finish, and the fact that both teams have tons to play for makes it all the more important to not miss.
Time: Sunday, March 10, 3:30 p.m. ET
Records: Chicago Bulls (35-27) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (32-31)
Injuries: Taj Gibson (knee, out), Derrick Rose (knee, day-to-day), Rip Hamilton (back, day-to-day), Kirk Hinrich (foot, day-to-day), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, out)
Key Storyline: Can New-Attitude Lakers Charge Harder Than Bulls?
When these two teams last faced off on Jan. 21, the Lakers were an absolute mess. They had no identity and relied way too heavily on Kobe Bryant to carry them on offense. In terms of the playoffs, that was an extreme long shot.
Thus, it was not at all surprising to see the Bulls pull away in the fourth quarter and win 95-83. Kirk Hinrich led the way with 22 points and eight assists while Chicago's tough-as-nails defense held the Lakers to just 18 percent three-point shooting.
But Los Angeles is a different team now. Since everyone has finally come together, the Lakers are now in a prime position to make the playoffs and even make a statement there so long as everyone remains bought-in to D'Antoni's system.
Long story short, this isn't the same team that Chicago beat back in January. Thus, defense has to be the name of the game for the Bulls.
Forget that the offense is weak, this is the opportunity to take plenty of wind out of LA's sails and start climbing back up the Eastern Conference ladder. Otherwise, the Bulls will become just another one of the Lakers' victims on the team's march towards the playoffs.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Joakim Noah
If the Bulls are going to win this game, it's going to be on the back of a strong defensive effort. That means Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joakim Noah must outplay three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Based on how the two have played this season, this battle could easily be a stalemate.
Noah has done a phenomenal job of stepping up his effort in the absence of Derrick Rose and is averaging 11.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. He has solid size for his position at 6'11", 232 pounds, and his commitment to excellence on defense is beyond admirable.
The former Florida Gator has been even better over his last five games, posting 15 points, 13.4 boards and four blocks per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field. He realizes that Chicago can only win on defense until Rose comes back, whenever that may be, and is doing a great job of carrying the team in that department.
Meanwhile, Howard has been solid for Los Angeles this season, averaging 16.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, but he has not exactly been the definition of consistency. This can be attributed to him being more of a low-post big man and not the pick-and-roll center that D'Antoni's offense requires, but he has never stopped trying to fit in all season long.
Over his last five games, Howard has posted 14.4 points, 14.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, and he'll need to continue that positive stretch against Noah. This means using his superior size at 6'11", 265 pounds to just take Noah out of the game completely. As good as Noah is on defense, Howard simply has to be better.
Giving himself the slightest edge will swing the pendulum in Los Angeles' favor, and Howard must stop at nothing to do that. As good as the Lakers have looked as of late, just how far they go really depends on him.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
Assuming Derrick Rose does not suit up for this game, Steve Nash will be in a prime position to have an excellent performance. That means being a solid scorer and passing when necessary, as has been his role in the Lakers' new-look offense.
The 39-year-old veteran has averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 assists per game this season. While those numbers may seem low, keep in mind that Nash is sharing the ball with two scoring stars in Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. His shooting percentages have still been incredible, as he has made 50 percent of his attempts from the floor and 44 percent of his threes.
Now that he is essentially a shooting guard while Kobe Bryant plays in pass-first mode, Nash needs to have a solid scoring performance against Chicago. He'll be in a good position to have just that with a weak defender in either Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson guarding him, and his last five games suggest that he could be on the verge of a hot streak.
Nash is averaging 14.4 points and 4.8 assists per game over that stretch, and he has also shot 47 percent from long range. The man can score points by either creating his own shot or making himself open for a three, and his experience makes the Lakers all the more dangerous on offense.
So long as he can continue to be excellent, the Lakers have a good shot at avenging their earlier loss to Chicago.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Nate Robinson
SG: Marco Belinelli
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
The Bulls really need to win this game, but a rowdy Staples Center crowd won't let them get the victory. Led by Lakers über-fan Jack Nicholson, the crowd will cheer Los Angeles to yet another win.
Kobe Bryant will have another epic scoring game complete with double-digit assists, and Dwight Howard will outplay Joakim Noah in the paint as he pulls off a double-double once again. It won't be the prettiest of performances, but he'll do just enough to show that he's still one of the league's top centers.
The Bulls will try and ride a solid game from Luol Deng in hopes of keeping the game close, but their offense will still be no match for Los Angeles', which ranks sixth in the league in points scored.
Thus, with the help of clutch baskets from Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, the Lakers will run their way to a key victory at home, and the fans will roar.
Los Angeles Lakers 113, Chicago Bulls 101
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