February 8, 2012

The compressed 66-game schedule of the 2011-12 regular season has resulted in several challenging stretches for all 30 NBA teams. For example, the New Orleans Hornets have a six-game road stretch later in February that includes back-to-back-to-back games Feb. 20-22 in Oklahoma City, Indiana and Cleveland. Thats nothing compared to what the Chicago Bulls are confronting, however. Currently on a arduous nine-game road trip, the Bulls left Illinois on Saturday, Jan. 28 and wont return home until after a game in Boston on Sunday, Feb. 12. Over that 15-day period, Chicagos travels include stops in Miami, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, New Jersey, New Orleans, Charlotte and Boston.

New Orleans upcoming February road trip is considerably more manageable because it is broken up by the Feb. 24-26 NBA All-Star break. The Hornets second-half schedule begins Feb. 28, with a rematch against these same Bulls at the United Center.

The Hornets have enjoyed some success so far at home against Eastern Conference opponents, with two of their victories coming in the Hive vs. Boston and Orlando, both by significant margins. Theyve also lost to Eastern foes Philadelphia and Atlanta on their home floor.

If New Orleans is to pull off what many would consider a major upset, the Hornets will likely need to rely heavily on their biggest team strength: defense. During the Bulls first six losses of the regular season, they were held under 95 points every time. When they score 95 points or more, they are undefeated at 15-0.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Emeka Okafor vs. Joakim Noah
The careers of Okafor and Noah include several striking similarities. Both big men became household hoops names in college, when they won NCAA championships at Connecticut and Florida, respectively. Both players were selected during the lottery portion of the NBA draft, with Okafor going second overall to the Bobcats in 2004 and Noah being taken ninth by the Bulls three years later. Both are relied upon heavily by their teams for interior defense and rebounding, with offensive production being an added bonus. Through the end of January, Noah ranked 17th in the NBA in rebounding average and Okafor was 27th. In an unusual coincidence, Noah was averaging 28.5 minutes per game, while Okafor was at 28.4.


According to the majority of NBA analysts, there are two elite teams in the Eastern Conference this season: the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Those clubs met in the East finals last spring, with Miami prevailing four games to one over Chicago. After back-to-back 41-41 records in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the Bulls rose to prominence by going 62-20 in 2010-11 and earning the No. 1 seed in the East. Meanwhile, point guard Derrick Rose captured the leagues MVP award in just his third professional season. At age 22, he was the youngest player in history to be named MVP. Through the first month-plus of 2011-12, the Bulls and Heat appear headed on a collision course to potentially meet again in the postseason, with the squads sporting two of their conferences premier records. Chicago has been plagued a bit by the injury bug early in the campaign, with Rose and wing players Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng all missing multiple games. Still, due to a roster that may be the deepest in the NBA, Chicago has been able to continue its success of last season, charging out of the gate at 12-2 prior to a semi-rough stretch. The Bulls have been extremely tough on their home floor, going 9-1.

Whats new
Following a successful 2010-11 season that was Chicagos finest since the Michael Jordan era, the Bulls made very few changes to their rotation. One area Chicago made a major upgrade was at shooting guard, where Hamilton was signed in free agency. That position has been a weakness in recent years, but Hamilton is one of the NBAs most effective mid-range shooters. The 13th-year veteran was a key component of the Detroit Pistons 2004 championship squad. Other than Hamilton, the only new face on the Chicago roster is rookie swingman Jimmy Butler, a first-round pick from Marquette. Butler played less than 90 total minutes through Chicagos first 24 games.

Bulls star
Rose, the No. 1 overall draft pick of the 2008 NBA draft, has rapidly become one of the leagues biggest superstars. The Chicago native was an erratic perimeter shooter in his first two seasons with his hometown team, allowing defenders to back off him and focus on stopping his ultra-quick drives to the basket. However, Rose has markedly improved his jumper, making it even more difficult to contain one of the leagues most athletic point guards. The University of Memphis product missed five January games due to a toe injury, but in a testament to the Bulls overall talent, they went 4-1 without their best player.

Bull on the rise
Third-year power forward Taj Gibson probably could start for many NBA teams, but with former All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer in front of him on the depth chart, Gibson has been an invaluable reserve for the Bulls. Despite playing roughly 20 minutes per game, the Southern Cal product is a consistent scorer, rebounder and interior defender. The hard-nosed 6-foot-9, 225-pounder authored one of the best highlights of the 2011 NBA playoffs, a vicious two-handed slam over Miamis Dwyane Wade on a fast break.

On the sideline
Like New Orleans Monty Williams, Chicagos Tom Thibodeau enjoyed a stellar debut as an NBA head coach in 2010-11. After serving as an assistant coach in the league for two decades, Thibodeaus first season at the helm resulted in 62 regular season victories and a trip to the East finals for Chicago. Thibodeau is known for his defensive expertise, an emphasis that has helped make the Bulls an outstanding squad at that end of the floor. In January alone, the Bulls won games by final scores of 76-74, 78-64 and 77-64.

Did you know?
The Chicago franchise entered the NBA as an expansion team in 1966-67, but did not reach the NBA Finals until 1990-91. Led by Hall of Fame players Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Bulls won six championships over an eight-season span of the 1990s. The Bulls recorded a pair of three-peats, in 1991-93 and again in 1996-98.

Players the Bulls want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Bulls need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Feb. 7)
Doesnt draw many fouls but possesses elite accuracy.
Has missed games recently with groin, thigh injuries.
Attempts nearly twice as many foul shots as any other Bull.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Feb. 7)
Has made over 1,000 treys in nine-year career.
Off to excellent start in 2011-12, at 47.7 percent.
Rose improving here, but still at just 30.8 career.

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