As the Bulls and Magic enter Amway Arena as relative yin and yang, it is hard to predict which version of each team will show up on Friday night. The Bulls have had an incredible season, but a bad loss to the Toronto Raptors and Wednesday's breakdown against Atlanta have Chicago in full gut-check mode. The Magic have struggled early on, going so far as to overhaul their roster with an early-season trade, but last night's incredible 24-point comeback win in Miami gives them a boost few saw coming. Whether due to the Heat's struggles or the Magic's fortitude, the box score shows that Orlando put up a 40-9 run to close out one of the Eastern Conference's elite. Regardless of circumstances, that deserves the Bulls clear-eyed attention.
Derrick Rose is coming off his worst game of the season, one in which he went 1-10 from the floor with six turnovers during the Bulls second half collapse in Atlanta. Few players have shown the ability to bounce back from adversity the way Rose has in his short career. Look to the Bulls' heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Clippers for evidence: After missing a last second game-tying free throw, Derrick Rose took the responsibility for that loss straight to the Berto Center where he worked relentlessly on his free throw shooting. Before the loss, he shot 77% from the line. Now? 83%. Bulls fans can only hope that his track record of mental strength continues tonight in Orlando.
On Thursday, the Bulls officially signed free agent guard/forward Rasual Butler. While he provides extra bench depth and may eventually help reduce Deng's minutes, he should not be expected to break into the Chicago rotation any time soon. Thus it will be up to Chicago's stars to step up in what will surely be a playoff atmosphere.
MAGIC TO WATCH FOR:
If Derrick Rose is the favorite for MVP at this point in the season, Magic center Dwight Howard cannot be far behind. He has single-handedly buoyed Orlando as his new teammates have found their roles. During the offseason he spent a great deal of time working on his post moves with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, and the results have been impressive. Jameer Nelson could be described as the poor man's Derrick Rose. He is a capable scorer, lightning-quick, and when he plays well the Magic seem to follow. The mid-season acquisitions of Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas have not played out exactly as Orlando had hoped, but with Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick and Brandon Bass, the Magic have enough depth to succeed in spite of it.
The Bulls were crushed by the Magic early on this season, but returned the favor in the United Center in mid-January. With only one victory dividing these teams in the standings, the stakes are high. Expect a barn-burner.
The marquee matchup of heavyweights begins at 6:00 CST on CSN Chicago, also nationally on ESPN. Let's get ready to rumble.
Follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks