The Hawks have struggled with Tom Thibodeau's physical defensive strategies before, and with a depleted roster on deck, some worry this one may be over before it even begins.
But, the Bulls aren't exactly at their full strength either. Their best player (Rose, of course) is out for the season, their two-way cog Luol Deng was traded weeks ago and D.J. Augustin is playing significant minutes. That might sound like a recipe for disaster, but, as you'll soon read, with Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls are rolling. He rides his best players into the ground (see: Butler, Jimmy; Deng, Luol), but there's no denying his system's on-court effectiveness. In an Eastern Conference as weak as this one, this team is sure to see at least limited success.
But where does that leave them in relation to the Hawks, losers of 8-of-9? Atlanta's depleted front-court should have a tough time containing and scoring on Chicago's front line, but Budenholzer is no slouch either. If he goes small and forces Chicago to match or have their bigs adjust, there's definitely a chance.
Question (Daniel Christian): The Bulls traded Luol Deng earlier in the year to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a money-saving move. Deng was unquestionably a centerpiece and staple of Thibodeau's offensive and defensive schemes. Catch us all up on how the Bulls have played in his absence and how Chicago has either successfully or unsuccessfully replaced his production.
Answer (Ricky O'Donnell): It's really surprising how good the Bulls have been without Deng. They're 16-8 since they made the trade, and neither the offense nor the defense appears to be affected all that much. Mike Dunleavy Jr. has proven to be a valuable offseason signing at $3 million per season, and Jimmy Butler has gradually gotten healthier in the last two months since the trade. Deng was a fantastic two-way player in Chicago for nine years, but it remains very weird seeing him in a Cleveland uniform. The Bulls' performance has taken much of the sting away from the trade, though. Tom Thibodeau's system is just that good.
Q: Chicago is somehow clinging to a winning record despite losing both Deng (trade) and Rose (injury) for the season. Is Tom Thibodeau a legit coach of the year candidate? How is he making D.J. Augustin look good?
A: Tom Thibodeau is probably the best X's and O's coach in the league, but his strengths double as his weaknesses. He pushes the pedal to the floor for every game, and I think it's fair to wonder if that's the right approach in the second straight season that's effectively lost due to Rose's injuries. In the short-term, though, it's been great. The Bulls have turned this season around by doing what they always do, and that's play great defense. Only Indiana has been better defensively this season, and Thibodeau's system combined with excellent play from Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson is the reason why. Augustin's arrival is certainly another big reason the Bulls have been able to turn the ship around, as Thibs has given him freedom and confidence to look for his own offense. It worked with John Lucas III a few years ago, and Augustin has been even better.
Q: This Bulls roster is now a far cry from the one that reached the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago. What is the expectation for the rest of the season? The ceiling?
A: If Bulls fans are being honest, we've known this season has been a wash since the moment Rose went down. It's horrible, especially for a year that began with championship aspirations. What are you gonna do? I just want the Bulls to get through this year with Noah's feet in decent condition and with Jimmy Butler in one piece. Next year, with Rose again (you hope), the Bulls should be primed to make some noise. Until then, I suppose the goal is to finish higher than the No. 7 seed, win a playoff series and await the eventual punishing handed out by Indy or Miami.
Q: Who do you think wins tonight and why? Give us a score prediction.
A: Man, Elton Brand played 43 minutes in Atlanta's last game and scored one point? That's great. I think the Bulls win because Atlanta is just too beat up. The Bulls were rolling before getting smoked in Miami, and I would expect that defeat to fuel them. Score .... eh, 92-81 Bulls.