I’m sure you’re thinking (as most people would), “why in the world is TNT putting this game on national television?!”, and you wouldn’t be crazy. Before the season began, the NBA felt comfortable enough to schedule a Philadelphia/Chicago match-up in “prime time” on TNT, and would have been fully justified in doing so. The Sixers had acquired Andrew Bynum (the consensus #2 center in the league before the season began), and Chicago would have been expecting to receive the services of Derrick Rose by approximately this point in the season.
Now? It’s the match-up of two teams that are both 3-7 in their last ten games, and a less-than-desirable face-off for the casual fan. Let’s take a look at what to expect on the court.
Philadelphia Offense vs. Chicago Defense
This is a striking mismatch. Entering Thursday night’s action, Philly is scoring at a miserable rate of 98.7 points per 100 possessions (good for 27th in the league) while Chicago’s defense is allowing just 98.8 points per 100 (4th in the league). A top-5 defense against a bottom-5 offense is a recipe for disaster on any night, but there is a small window of hope for Philly. Jrue Holiday (Philly’s best player) draws the always-favorable match-up of Nate Robinson and a less-than-100% Kirk Hinrich, and that’s an area where the Sixers can excel.
Holiday has fantastic size for a point guard (6’4, 205 lbs) and Chicago can’t even afford to try Nate Robinson on him for any extended stretch. Could the Bulls make the calculated decision to throw Luol Deng’s length at Holiday? If they don’t elect to follow that option, I can see Tom Thibodeau being forced to play Hinrich a ton of minutes in order to place any sort of defensive resistance on Holliday. Up front, the Bulls will be without Taj Gibson who is expected to miss up to 2 weeks with an ankle injury. This is a significant blow for the Bulls (and another ray of hope for Philly) as Gibson is a much, much better defensive player than Carlos Boozer, and their depth takes a hit without him.
There aren’t enough numbers/injuries in the world to take this match-up and make it an advantage for Philly, but the gap isn’t as wide on Thursday night as the numbers would suggest.
Chicago Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
In the more interesting (i.e. closer) match-up, Philly’s 12th-rated defense (allowing 102.5 pts/100) squares off against Chicago’s 25th-rated offense (99.8 pts/100). The aforementioned decision by Thibodeau concerning his defensive deployment against Holiday will also be key to the Chicago offense. The Bulls are a much more dangerous unit offensively with Nate Robinson on the court, as he provides the only “burst” on that end for the Rose-less Chicago squad, but if Thibodeau can’t play him, that’s a net-negative. Chicago’s offense has been an absolute mess in recent days, having been held to 72 points or less three times in the last two weeks.
When it gets bad for their offense, it gets really bad, and it would really help to have Nate “Instant Offense” Robinson on the court as much as possible. Up front, I expect Carlos Boozer to have some success against the perennially under-manned Sixers’ front-court, and he’ll play a ton of minutes on a night where Gibson isn’t in the lineup. Joakim Noah isn’t an “offensive” player by any means, but it would really benefit Chicago to get some level of production from Noah (even if it’s just on the offensive glass) to spark some easy baskets.
Match-up to Watch - Evan Turner vs. Luol Deng
The Deng/Turner match-up isn’t “flashy” by any standard, but it could very well decide the winner of the game. Both guys are ultra-versatile players who don’t feature explosive offensive games, but each of them can score effectively in various ways. Deng has the big-time length advantage, and it’ll be interesting to see how Chicago uses him offensively against the smaller (by 2 inches) player in Turner. Deng has actually struggled mightily in Chicago’s last 10 games, shooting just over 39% while producing just 13.7 points per game.
On the other side, Turner’s numbers are even worse in the recent past, as his shooting percentage has tumbled to under 36% in the last 10 games, and it won’t get easier against a plus-defender in Deng. One stat to note is the performance of the Sixers in the standings directly correlating to Turner’s efficiency and performance on the court. In Philly’s 22 wins this season, Turner has averaged 14.5 points (on 46.9% FG) and 7.5 rebounds, but in the Sixers’ 33 losses, those numbers dip to 13.5 points (on a ghastly 39.7% FG) and 6.1 boards per game. In the end, the winner of this head-to-head face-off should be in the driver’s seat on the scoreboard.
Because of the fact that Chicago has struggled mightily at home this year (just 15-14, while going 17-11 on the road), this screams “upset” on the surface. With that said, Philly is just 6-18 on the road this year, and I’m not convinced that they have the explosiveness offensively to take down a Thibodeau-coached team that will always defend despite unfortunate circumstances.
I expect a low-scoring game (in the 80′s for each team), and while it won’t be the most aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, it will be highly competitive.