The Nets close out the first half in Chicago

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

It's the end of the first half and the beginning of the season long seven game road trip for Brooklyn.

It's been a weird first half for the Brooklyn Nets. Thought to be a Championship contender at the beginning of the season, injuries and poor play hurt the Nets and had them on the brink of collapse. However, they've turned it around starting from January and are rising in the Eastern Conference standings. After this game is All Star Weekend, but the Nets won't be headed back to Brooklyn any time soon. This is the first game of a seven game road trip that will take them to Utah, Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland, and Denver before wrapping up in Milwaukee. They've won their last two games, including a 105-89 win over eighth seed Charlotte last night.

Awaiting the Nets on Valentine's Day Eve will be the Chicago Bulls. They too were thought to be Championship contenders at the beginning of the season, but injuries have derailed their title aspirations. And just like the Nets, they started to turn their season around in January. They've gone 14-7 since the calendar turned to 2014 and are currently in the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The last time Chicago was in action they beat up on the Hawks.

This is a rematch of the Christmas Day opener that the Bulls won 95-78. The big change for the Bulls has been the loss of Marquis Teague Luol Deng as he got traded to Cleveland in early January.

The season so far

What's the story with these two? Let's check it out:

Metric

Brooklyn

Chicago

Record

24-26 26-25

Pace

93.97 93.05

Offensive Efficiency

103.3 97.5

Defensive Efficiency

104.5 98

Offensive Rebounding percentage

22.7 28.2

Turnover rate

15.4 16.6

Assist rate

16.7 17.2

Rebound rate

48 51.9

Free throw rate

31.3 28.7

Effective Field Goal percentage

50.3 46.1

Opponent Effective Field Goal percentage

50.4 47.5

Generally speaking, the Nets miss Brook Lopez. His loss is even more damaging when facing a physical team like the Bulls.

Kevin Garnett hasn't played in many back-to-back games, but he might be available for this one. He hasn't played 20 minutes in the past three games (all blowouts) so in theory he should have enough energy for this one. They're gonna need him because he can help counteract Chicago's great rebounding (fourth overall). Also, they're short on size with Reggie Evans out due to personal reasons. Look for Mason Plumlee to see a large amount of minutes if Garnett is made unavailable.

The D.J. Augustin & Kirk Hinrich point guard tandem isn't all that great, so Deron Williams should be looking to attack them consistently. Williams had a decent game the first time he saw Chicago, but the game was such a blowout that it didn't have that much of an effect.

Carlos Boozer has been dealing with a calf injury and has missed the last three games. While he's been out, Taj Gibson has taken his place in the starting five. You can make the argument that the Bulls should have put him in the starting lineup over Boozer years ago, but that's an issue Chicago will have to face once Boozer returns. With Gibson, the Bulls have a strong, quick power forward/Center that's great on the glass and is a better offensive player than you think. He'll help to make life tough on Mirza Teletovic as Mirza hopes to spread the floor for Brooklyn.

For the second straight season, Joakim Noah has led the Bulls offense. Noah has averaged 12 points, 12 rebounds and close to five assists a night as he's been selected to play in the All Star Game on Sunday night. The big improvement on offense has been his decrease in turnovers. I had always begged him as a quality shooter from the high post, but he's struggled from that area this season.

As usual, Chicago's defense is one of the league's best. They're allowing 98 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the league after division rival Indiana. They've been able to excel by keeping teams out of the paint. Opponents only take 24 shots a game inside the restricted area against the Bulls and make 57 percent of those shots. They force teams into those tough (least valuable) midrange shots and hold them to 38 percent efficiency. For all of the criticisms Tom Thibodeau has gotten in and out of Chicago, he's to be commended for getting the most value out of such a thin roster now.

Player to Watch: Jimmy Butler

Injuries have slowed down the Bulls wing man this season. Despite the injuries, Butler is leading the team (and eleventh in the league) in minutes per game. When he has played, he's struggled. After expanding his range and connecting on 38 percent of his three pointers last season, Butler has averaged three attempts from deep a game this year, but is only shooting 27.4 percent. Most troubling for Butler has been his lack of success finishing near the basket. As the second half progresses and he gets past his injury woes, Butler's performance will match what he did last year.

Butler figures to draw Paul Pierce defensively to start this contest. Pierce is coming off a wonderful game against Charlotte, scoring 25 points with a perfect 5-5 from three point range. Butler is one of the Bulls' best defenders and will look to keep Pierce out of the post and force him into contested jumpers.

From the Vault

We're headed to All Star Weekend, so let's head back to the last time the All Star Game was in Chicago. Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan in the same Dunk Contest? Oh hell yeah!


More reading: Blog a Bull

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