Coming into the season many thought that Boston and Miami would be at the top of the Eastern Conference, but few expected the Chicago Bulls to be right with the Celtics and Heat.
Looking to surpass their win total from last season, the surging Bulls continue their road trip Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, who return home seeking an eighth win in nine games in the series.
After beating Milwaukee 83-75 on Saturday, the Bulls (41-17) easily defeated Washington 105-77 on Monday night on the second stop of their five-game trek to move one game behind Miami and remain two behind East-leading Boston.
Chicago’s trip is about to get more difficult, though, with matchups against Orlando and the Heat following their visit to Atlanta.
The Bulls, who face the Hawks three times in the next three weeks, have lost five straight at Atlanta by an average of 16.2 points and seven of eight overall in the series. MVP candidate Derrick Rose scored 32 points on Dec. 19, 2009, leading his team to its only victory over that span, 101-98 in overtime.
Chicago has won seven of eight overall and has limited opponents to 80.3 points on 38.0 percent shooting during a three-game winning streak – defense that could make things difficult on Atlanta.
The Hawks (36-24) are averaging just 89.4 points – 6.8 fewer than their season mark – over their last nine games and return to Philips Arena after losing four of seven on their recent trip.
“It’s acceptable,” coach Larry Drew said of the trip. “It could have been a lot worse. That’s what I told the guys. We’re still in a position where we can control our own destiny.”
The fifth-place Hawks had won 14 of 16 at home prior to back-to-back losses before the trip, and will probably need to slow down two of Chicago’s best players if they hope to avoid matching their longest home skid of the season.
Rose had 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds against the Wizards while Joakim Noah recorded 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 11 boards for his first double-double in four games since missing 30 with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
“He’s back, almost to the point he was at before the injury,” coach Tom Thibodeau told NBA.com. “His activity is off the charts. His defense is terrific, his rebounding is very good, and you can see he’s starting to get a lot more comfortable offensively.”
While Chicago is getting used to having one of its stars back, the Hawks could be without one of theirs after Josh Smith suffered a knee injury in a 100-90 loss at Denver on Monday night.
Smith was averaging 22.0 points in his previous three games prior to scoring 10 before leaving in the second quarter. He was unable to return and his status for Wednesday remains in question.
Joe Johnson scored 22 for the second consecutive night after averaging 11.4 points on 39.8 percent shooting in his previous seven games. Johnson is averaging 23.5 points in his last six meetings with Chicago, including two 40-point efforts.
The Hawks acquired guard Kirk Hinrich, who spent his first seven years in the league with the Bulls, from Washington prior to Thursday’s trade deadline, but he was held out Monday with a sore right calf and could miss this game.
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