The 76ers (15-52; 5th-Atlantic Division, 14th-Eastern Conference) – after making a competitive stop in Indianapolis on Monday – return home to the Wells Fargo to take on the Chicago Bulls (37-30; 2nd-Central Division, 4th-Eastern Conference). In a 99-90 loss to the Pacers two days ago, the Sixers established a new franchise record by suffering their 21st consecutive loss. The skid is the longest in the NBA since the Cleveland Cavaliers endured an all-time league-high 26 straight defeats during the 2010-2011 season.
Tonight is the first of two meetings between the Sixers and Chicago over the next four days. The Sixers capped an unexpected 3-0 start to the season with an impressive win over the-then healthy Bulls on November 2nd, erasing an 18-point deficit for a 107-104 victory. Led by Joakim Noah’s 21 points and 16 rebounds and a strong first half effort, Chicago dusted aside the visiting Sixers in the second match-up of the year, 103-78.
The Bulls are fresh off a challenging six-game homestand that required them to host four of the NBA’s top six teams. Chicago went 3-3 during this stretch, with wins against the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, and Sacramento Kings; the Bulls’ losses were against the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder, all of which are currently eligible for the playoffs.
One issue for the 76ers this season is that the roster has been thin on players with extensive NBA experience. In what has become a new obstacle, the Sixers’ roster is now simply thin on players in general. With shooting a quad contusion sidelining James Anderson for a second game in a row, and an assignment to the Delaware 87ers relegating forward Arnett Moultrie to the D-League, the Sixers could have as few as 11 active players available tonight.
As a result of Anderson’s injury, rookie swingman Hollis Thompson was presented with more minutes and more scoring chances in Indianapolis on Monday night. His ability to capitalize on the increase in playing time proved to be one of the more positive storylines that surfaced from the Sixers’ 99-90 defeat at the Pacers. While Thompson has managed to earn a steady spot in the Sixers’ rotation, his primary responsibility has been to defend, not score. However, with the Sixers needing an offensive boost on Monday, he was there to answer the call, tying a season-high with 17 points. Thompson connected on all four of his three-point attempts, on the way to making six of his seven total shots.
Thompson’s production not only gave the Sixers an outside shot at ending their lengthy skid, but he was personally able to bounce back from a scoreless performance from his previous game. Although Brett Brown has already said he considers Thomspon a potential ‘keeper’ prospect for next season, the Georgetown product could make a stronger case for himself with a few more efforts like the one he delivered at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Amidst great anticipation, Chicago began its season with MVP point guard Derrick Rose cleared to play. He was one of four All-Stars – along with Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah – that helped making up the starting unit. Now, as the Bulls head into their 68th game of the season, only Boozer and Noah are contributing members of the team. Rose – after only 10 games – saw yet another season taken away due to a knee injury, while Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers so that Chicago could create salary cap flexibility.
Despite the loss of Rose and Deng, and the 35-plus points per game they averaged between themselves, the Bulls have survived and progressed as the season has gone along. On January 1st, a week before Deng was shipped off, Chicago was six games under the .500 mark. In the 37 games that have since followed, the Bulls have found their way to 25 wins, the highest total for any Eastern Conference team in the 2014 calendar year.
Over the course of the Bulls’ current 25-12 spurt, Noah has been a major difference-maker, averaging 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. He had been averaging 10.2 points and 6.6 rebounds before this period. In what was a highlight from late February and early, Noah strung together three consecutive triple-double performances.
While much of the Bulls’ on-court resolve and grit can be attributed to Noah’s determination (and the no-excuse approach of head coach Tom Thibodeau), he’s had some help in keeping Chicago’s afloat. Fifth-year forward Taj Gibson – putting up 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds – is having a career-year, while veteran big man Carlos Boozer has been a consistent performer as well with 20 double-doubles.