Five games to keep an eye on in Bulls' 2011-12 schedule

Five games to keep an eye on in Bulls' 2011-12 schedule
The Bulls will start the 2011-12 season with a four-game road trip.

It took the Bulls a couple months to find their stride on the road last season -- and that was with a full 82-game slate. Coach Tom Thibodeau has to hope his team becomes comfortable away from the United Center awfully quick in 2011-12, because the Bulls will start the revised, 66-game regular-season with a four-game road trip.

After opening the campaign against the L.A. Lakers in a 4 p.m. Chicago time contest at the Staples Center on ABC, the Bulls will visit the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 26, the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 29 and return to the Staples Center on Dec. 30 for a tilt against former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers.

The Bulls' home opener is slated for New Year's Day against the Memphis Grizzles at 7 p.m. CT.

In a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls and Miami Heat will square four times in the new season. The first matchup is Jan. 29 in Miami on ABC, followed by a March 14 game in Chicago on ESPN, an April 12 contest in Miami on TNT and back in Chicago on April 19 on TNT.

While the Bulls were able to dodge the annual circus trip because of the lockout, they will play nine straight road games starting Jan. 29 versus Miami.

The Bulls will play the defending champion Dallas Mavericks on April 29, the teams' only matchup of the season. Under the previous schedule, the Bulls' season opener was supposed to be in Dallas.

You can check out the full schedule, featuring 26 nationally televised games, on the Chicago Bulls' website, which had not previously shown the pair of preseason games against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 16 and 20.

As far as the Bulls and their fans are concerned, here is a look at five games to keep an eye as we near the upcoming season.

Dec. 25 at Los Angeles: Any game headlined by Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant is a must-watch. For casual fans, Christmas Day is typically the unofficial start to the season. The Bulls and Lakers are expected to be title contenders, but fans of both squads have spent the prolonged offseason asking questions. Can the Bulls reach the next level in 2011-12 -- additions or not? How will the Lakers, led by new head coach Mike Brown, respond after being swept by the Mavs in last season's Western Conference semifinals? Two of the many unresolved questions for the respective clubs.

Jan. 1 vs. Memphis: The Bulls' first opportunity to defend their home court will come against the Memphis Grizzlies, an up-and-coming team that upset the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of last season's playoffs. With only two of the first nine regular-season games in Chicago, winning at the United Center will be crucial if coach Tom Thibodeau's bunch will achieve early-season success.

Jan. 6 at Orlando: Because of all the rumors surrounding Dwight Howard, this early-season matchup will have some extra flavor to it -- especially considering that many Bulls fans have dreamed about the idea of Rose throwing alley-oops to Howard in Chicago. Still, the Orlando Magic center has an uncertain future and is keeping his front office in limbo. Does GM Otis Smith deal Howard to get back as much value as possible or does he keep Howard and risk losing the league's top center for nothing? The Bulls may have players who can satisfy Orlando's desires in a possible trade, but it appears that Howard has his sights on playing elsewhere and for a team in which he's the lead star.

Jan. 29 at Miami: The longest road trip for the Bulls begins in Miami, where they will look for revenge following their five-game series defeat to the Heat in May. The nine-game slate, from Jan. 29-Feb. 12, will include visits in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, New Jersey, New Orleans, Charlotte and Boston. For what it's worth, the Bulls were victors in the first game of both extended road trips last season, helping them post a 7-5 record between the outings.

Feb. 14 vs. Sacramento: A Tuesday night game against the Sacramento Kings usually isn't one a fan would circle on the calendar, but it will begin the Bulls' longest homestand of the season, consisting of six games against the aforementioned Sacramento, Boston, New Jersey, Atlanta, Milwaukee and New Orleans on Feb. 28. Furthermore, the Bulls will play 13 of their next 17 games at home starting Feb. 14. Following an early dose of road action, the Bulls will have to take advantage of their extended stints at the United Center.

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