Bulls-Bobcats preview


The basics: Chicago (27-33) at Charlotte (25-35). The Bulls are 10-22 on the road, while the Bobcats are 16-15 at home.

Advanced stuff: Chicago’s Offensive Rating is 106.9 (19th of 30) and their Defensive Rating is 108.5 (17th of 30). Charlotte’s O-Rating is only so-so at 103.8 (27th of 30), but their D-Rating is 105.9 (8th of 30).

The season series: Currently 1-0, advantage Charlotte. On December 16, the host Bobcats snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating the Bulls 110-101 in overtime behind D.J. Augustin’s career-high 29 points. It was a battle of rookie point guards, with Augustin — the ninth overall pick — crushing Derrick Rose (6 points, 3-for-16). In fact, Augustin forced overtime by hitting three free throws with 19 seconds left after Rose “fouled” him on a three-point attempt. “I must have blinked too hard or something,” Rose said. Replied Augustin: “That’s what the ref called.” After this game, the series concludes on April 11 in Chicago.

The stakes: The Bulls currently are ninth in the East, a game behind the Milwaukee Bucks and a half-game ahead of the New Jersey Nets for that all-important final playoff spot. But stop the presses, what’s that? The ‘Cats are sneaking up on all three teams, now only two games behind the Bulls and three games behind the Bucks. And if they win tonight, that would give them the tiebreaker against the Bulls should the two teams finish with the same record.

The analysis:The Bulls are thinking playoffs…but suddenly so are the Bobcats, and their three-game winning streak — in which all three victories came on the road — has both lifted them back into the running and given them the confidence to make a postseason push. Forget that those three wins came against the Pacific Division celler-dwelling Kings (13-48), Warriors (20-39) and Clippers (15-46). Of course, I shouldn’t scoff at road wins over sub-.500 teams, considering that the Bulls lost at Indiana (26-36), New Jersey (26-33) and Washington (14-46) last week.

And that’s the problem. They’ve beaten the Nuggets (39-21), Magic (43-16) and Rockets (38-22) in their last three home games, but, well, you saw what they’ve done in their last three trips outside of the Windy City. They just don’t play with the same level of focus and intensity on the road, either offensively or defensively. There was little sense of urgency against the Nets and Wizards. Of course, the sense of urgency was missing against the Rockets, too, until the final five-and-a-half minutes. That has to change.

To win this one, D-Rose needs to impose his will early and often. Joakim Noah and/or Brad Miller must limit Emeka Okafor’s scoring opportunities while also keeping the big man off the boards (Okafor is averaging almost 4 offensive rebounds per game). Ben Gordon will need to find a way to score against Raja Bell’s persistent defense. And somebody (John Salmons?) has to D-up on Gerald Wallace. I don’t care if Wallace is shooting only 41 percent in the eight games since he returned from a partially collapsed lung. That guy is a point-scoring bomb that’s just waiting to go off.

Injury update:Luol Deng (possible stress fracture in his right tibia) and Tim Thomas (hyperextended left knee) are still listed as day-to-day. Since an MRI revealed that Deng’s tibia wasn’t fractured, he could play…but whatever’s wrong in there, he’s still hurt, and it’s been affecting his play. The acquisition of Salmons gives us added depth at SF, so I don’t see any reason to risk Deng at this point. Best to let him recover. We’ll need him if we make it to the playoffs.

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