Amidst a rash of injuries, heavy trade speculation, and a massive plummet down the Eastern Conference standings, the limping Chicago Bulls (27-25) hoped to avoid a fifth-straight loss as they take on the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers (38-14) on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
At the turn of the new year, the Bulls were a mere 2.5 games back of Cleveland for the East’s top spot but injuries to leading scorer Jimmy Butler, forward Nikola Mirotic and center Joakim Noah have vastly depleted Fred Hoiberg's squad. The Bull have dropped 13 of the last 18 games to fall to No. 7 in the East, and a postseason berth may suddenly be in jeopardy with the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons lurking behind.
Mirotic, who’s third on the team with 10.6 points per game and one of Chicago's best long-range shooters, has undergone two surgeries for an appendectomy. He told reporters Wednesday that he intends to play again this season.
Butler is likely out until March due to a left knee strain, and his injury coupled with the recent slide have made Chicago sellers on the trade market. The biggest names involved in speculation leading up to Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline are forwards Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson.
The 35-year-old Gasol is widely expected to forgo the final year of his current contract and test free agency in the summer, while Gibson remains a versatile scoring and rebounding threat who fits well on most NBA rosters.
The Cavs are also dealing with a key injury and heavy trade speculation prior to the deadline, but have surged to an 8-2 run in the last 10 games under head coach Tyronn Lue.
Forward Kevin Love, a constant in recent trade chatter, endured a shoulder injury in the second quarter of Feb. 10’s 120-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland’s last game before the All-Star break. Later it was revealed Love suffered a stinger and it wasn’t serious.
Thankfully for Love and Cleveland the timing of the injury was near perfect and he is expected to play against Chicago after returning to practice Wednesday.
Cleveland enters the home matchup as one of the hottest teams in the league behind forward LeBron James and point guard Kyrie Irving.
Irving began the month on a scoring barrage, netting 27.7 points and 6.7 assists while shooting 55.9 percent from the field in the last six games. James, as usual, remains a triple-double threat with 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game this month.
Tip-off: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TNT
Live Stream: TNT Overtime
Betting Odds: Cleveland -12
Over/Under: 207 points
Prediction: Cleveland over Chicago, 106-92