The Chicago Bulls head into Atlanta off of a loss and will bring their streak of "no consecutive losses" with them. They're the only team in the NBA that hasn't dropped two games in a row at some point. Tonight will be a big test in keeping that streak alive, and quite frankly, I'm not that optimistic.
The Bulls have played badly for three straight games. They managed to win two of the three, but they haven't been able to clamp down on the defensive end in some time. Chicago really misses Rose as a defensive presence as he gives them more size and athleticism on the perimeter and can disrupt the other team far more than Watson and Lucas do.
They also miss his defensive presence because with Rose in the game there are more shots at the rim, fewer long rebounds, fewer deep turnovers, and less easy baskets for the opposition. Plus Rose tends to get back on defense in these situations to cause more disruption when there is such an opportunity.
As it stands, the Bulls will head into Atlanta looking to get back on track against a team that plays great at home and has the personnel to score from all over the floor.
This is a chess match
The Hawks have generally played small ball due to Al Horford's injury which gives Tom Thibodeau plenty of leeway in how he wishes to attack the Hawks. He can counter with more small ball in order to get more ball handling and shooting on the floor, or he can counter by going big and hoping to crush the Hawks on the boards and in the paint.
The problem with the Bulls big lineup is that if they go truly big with Omer and Noah they don't have enough offensive prowess to dominate due to their size, but I like the Bulls keeping to legit big men on the floor at all times and trying to press their interior advantage.
Oh Luol, you try so hard
I will not question Deng's toughness, effort, heart, or intensity, but it's clear the wrist is really holding back his game significantly. If Rose and Hamilton were healthy, I'd go as far as to recommend Deng just shut it down until the last three or four games of the season in order to hit the playoffs in less pain.
Hopefully the extra days off during the stretch run and playoffs allow Deng to get some relief, but he's at a point where he rarely dribbles with his left hand, gets stripped more frequently, and can't get to the hoop nearly as much. His shot has always been somewhat inconsistent, and he's forced into far more jumpers now.
He's still grinding and working every game and doing the best he can with what he has, but he's hardly the guy who earned an all-star selection earlier this season.
Tonight, Deng's primary focus should be on the defensive end as he'll likely match up against Joe Johnson all night long. If he can force Johnson into tough shots and a poor outing then Chicago's odds will improve considerably.
The team's slide in play coincides with Noah's. Coincidence?
Chicago has played poorly as a team in three straight games. Joakim Noah has played poorly in three straight games. Coincidence? I think not. With Rose out, Joakim is the heart of the team. When playing well he makes tons of plays that don't show up in the box score.
He contests rebounds on the offensive end even without getting boards which slows the opponent's transition game down. He intimidates guys in the paint, gets offensive put backs, moves the ball efficiently as an offensive facilitator, and gets Chicago easy looks in transition.
However, besides the more tangible of his intangibles, the key thing Noah brings is a contagious attitude and energy. When Noah gets pumped up, the team gets pumped up. His play becomes infectious. He swings momentum.
Joakim Noah has a match up against the thuggish Zaza Pachulia. Zaza will look to make up for a lack of size and athleticism with elbows, shoving, and underhanded play. Will it get to Noah or simply wake him up? I think the latter. I expect a big game from Joakim tonight and think if the Bulls are to win that he'll be the biggest reason why.
Create defense by changing the offense
The past couple games Chicago has failed to bring one of the top defenses in the NBA to the party, and that caused them to need overtime against the Raptors and lose to the Nuggets. As noted above, their more jump shooting style of offense has significantly impacted their defense.
If they can get more looks down low, especially against a smaller Atlanta front court, their defense should be in much better position to stop the Hawks. Chicago should try to coax a good game out of Boozer and force the game into a slower pace where it becomes a battle of half court defenses.
Their own defense will then play to its strength of fundamentals and movement while limiting the weaknesses of perimeter size which tend to get exploited more in transition.
Don't see the Bulls winning this one
It's not often I predict a Bulls loss, because the Bulls lose so infrequently, but this is a very tough game for them. Atlanta has too much talent in their starting lineup, plays great at home, and Chicago seems to have lost much of whatever fairy dust they sprinkled on their team to win so many games without Derrick already.
They have done well without Rose against marquee opponents, but I think that streak will end tonight in Atlanta as well as their lack of consecutive loss streak.