Two of the Eastern Conference's best teams will take center stage in the NBA Thursday night when the Miami Heat visit the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
The Heat will take an eight-game winning streak into the Windy City Thursday night when the defending champs meet a Bulls team ranked highly in almost all defensive categories.
"That's what you play for. You want to play against the best," said Bulls center Joakim Noah. "They're No. 1 right now. We're on the rise; we're hungry. Let's get it!"
The Bulls won this season's only matchup, a 96-89 victory on Jan. 4 in South Beach. Chicago is one of those tough, physical teams which can give the Heat problems, but Miami is playing its best basketball of the season right now.
The Heat extended their streak to eight on Wednesday night thanks to a dominant fourth-quarter performance over the Atlanta Hawks in Dixie.
Trailing by 10 to start the final frame, the Heat buried the Hawks, 40-17 to go on to a 103-90 victory.
"Everybody felt comfortable on the offensive end. And then defensively, we were in tune with everything they were running," LeBron James said. "We got stops and we didn't have turnovers."
James had scored 30-plus in seven straight and even went through an unprecedented run of six consecutive 30-plus scoring nights while shooting over 60 percent from the field. That Herculean feat was snapped against the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the break, but his scoring tear was halted against the Hawks.
James still went for 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting, but did hand out 11 assists. Eight of those 11 came in the crucial fourth quarter. James also had six rebounds and four steals versus Atlanta.
Dwyane Wade netted 20 in a solid all-around performance for the Heat offense. Shane Battier hit five 3-pointers en route to 17 points off the bench and Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers both scored in double figures.
The Heat will complete a four-game road trip on Saturday night in Philadelphia.
The Bulls are coming off a 96-87 road victory Tuesday night in the Big Easy. They bested the New Orleans Hornets with what they do best, physical defense and rebounding.
Chicago's catalyst for all that was once again Noah. The recent All Star had a brilliant all-around game with 15 points, 17 rebounds, five assist and three blocks.
"Joakim was everywhere," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "Multiple effort plays. It probably was one of his best screening games."
Maybe all of those great screens was what freed up Chicago's other All Star, Luol Deng, to post a game-high 20 points. Carlos Boozer, the other brute on the Bulls front line, added 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Kirk Hinrich returned after a seven-game absence from a damaged bursa sac on his elbow. He only managed five points, but dished out 10 assists.
The Bulls have taken six of the last eight meetings between the two team, including the win earlier this season.
On that night, the Heat had no answer for Boozer, who went off for 27 points and 12 rebounds. Chicago destroyed the Heat on the glass to the tune of 48-28.
The Heat haven't won in Chicago in their last four tries.