Here's what being a Chicago sports fan will do to you:
The Chicago Bulls have 51 wins, their highest mark since the 1997-98 season. They have a one-game lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and a soft remaining schedule. According to pundits from coast to coast, Derrick Rose will win the Most Valuable Player award, and Tom Thibodeau seems a likely choice to be voted Coach of the Year. If this team had any more chemistry it would burst into flames. And the Bulls are coming off of their biggest back-to-back wins in franchise history.
This all should please me greatly, and it does. But being a Chicago sports fan, it also scares the hell out of me. The last time something was going this well, I ended up cursing a stranger named Steve Bartman and beating my head against the wall. So please excuse a bit of pessimism from this neck of the woods as the Bulls roar like a runaway freight train toward the playoffs.
Winners of 10 of 11, Chicago returns home to play the Memphis Grizzlies, owners of a three-game winning streak of their own and coming off of a huge win against the Boston Celtics. (Thank you!) Without question the Bulls are currently playing their best basketball and, according to some, the best in the NBA this season. For multiple reasons, however, the Grizzlies shouldn't be taken lightly.
Memphis is clinging to a two-game lead in the Western Conference over the streaking Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns. From this point on, every game is a near-playoff for the Grizzlies -- and their winning of play of late shows they're up to the challenge.
Only two days ago, swingman Rudy Gay was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, which might set some Bulls fans at ease. Not so fast, as the Grizzlies have actually performed better in Gay's absence. With the inspired play of Tony Allen and Shane Battier, the Grizzlies lead the league in forced turnovers (16.7) and steals (9.42) while ranking second in points off turnovers (19.3). Rose's primary responsibility will be protecting the ball and setting up Chicago's shooters.
Finally, the Grizzlies have been the only NBA team to average at least 50 points in the paint over the last two seasons.
The Grizzlies have outscored their opponents in the paint in 19 consecutive games, the longest streak since the turn of the century, for an average of 18.2 points per game during the run, scoring 60-or-more points five times. The Bulls frontcourt will have its hands full -- especially with Taj Gibsonand Luol Deng nursing minor injuries.
Where Memphis struggles is shooting and defending the three-point line. Grizzlies opponents average 7.3 made three pointers a game, while the Griz only score 3.7. If the Bulls are going to win the game, they'll need to play well on the perimeter.
Grizzlies To Watch For
Zach Randolph is seldom mentioned among the NBA elite, but the stats don't lie. Randolph earned the franchise's first Player of the Month Award in January, and he's averaging a double-double for the fifth consecutive season, the second-longest active streak in the NBA (Dwight Howard, 7). The Grizzlies have a potent second unit that will give the Bulls bench mob all it can handle, with the likes of O.J. Mayo, Shane Battier and Darrell Arthur all playing solid basketball.
Bulls To Watch For
It gives me great pleasure to remind you that Derrick Rose notched his first career triple double in this season's only other meeting against Memphis, going off for 22 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. Luol Deng (thigh), Taj Gibson (toe) and C.J. Watson(plantar fascitis) are all dealing with nagging injuries. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver will need to play well for the Bulls to notch their 32nd home victory of the year.
There are no trap games at this point in the season, and the Grizzlies are too talented to consider it as such anyways. Nevertheless, the Bulls spectacular play of late and near-flawless home record could cause a team to lose focus. Rest assured, Tom Thibodeau is well aware of that possibility and will drill it into the Bulls'heads every second leading up to the opening tip.
The Bulls go for their 52nd win of the season tonight at 7:00 p.m. CDT on Comcast Sports Net.