The story lines are a plenty: Joakim Noah vs. Al Horford. Kirk Hinrich against his old team. The fifth-place Atlanta Hawks against the third-place Chicago Bulls, for the first of three meetings over a three week span.
But when the Hawks face off against the Bulls on Wednesday night at Philips Arena, it will be more about the health of Josh Smith.
Smith hopes to return from a sprained right MCL injury when his Hawks open a stretch of 10 of their next 11 at home and take on the Bulls (7:00 p.m., SportSouth, 97.9 FM) in what should be a potential playoff matchup in Atlanta.
The Hawks look to rebound from a disappointing end to what was a 3-4 road trip that began on Feb. 14 in Detroit and ended on Monday night in Denver. In that one, a depleted Atlanta team that was playing without Hinrich (calf) was finally worn down by a deep Denver Nuggets team in a battle of attrition.
Of course, it didn't help that Atlanta lost its defensive anchor and prolific shot blocker Smith for the second half of the game in the 100-90 loss. Smith sprained his right knee after banging knees with Denver's J.R. Smith.
Atlanta hopes that Josh Smith will return in time for this crucial stretch against a somewhat surprising Bulls team that has already matched its win total from next season.
Streaking Chicago is in the middle of a five-game road trip that will take the club to Orlando and Miami next. They are presently stalking both the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Baby Bulls are one game behind the Heat and two behind the C's for the top spot in a beefed up East.
The Bulls are lead by MVP candidate Derrick Rose, who is posting an average of 24.8 points and 8.1 assists the season. They also can count on Horford's Florida teammate Noah to clean up the glass. He is averaging 13.9 points and 11.9 boards a game.
Atlanta had won 14 of 16 at the Highlight Factory before suffering a pair of setbacks in early February. The Hawks have won five straight and seven of their last eight against the Bulls. Chicago's last win in the series was a 101-98 overtime victory on Dec. 19, 2009.