(Sports Network) - 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.
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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.
San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers
(Sports Network) - Two of the NBA's finest meet at the Staples Center Thursday night when the San Antonio Spurs, owners of the best record in the league, take on the Los Angeles Clippers.
These are two teams with legitimate title hopes and are playing as such. Both head into this nationally-televised heavyweight bout with four-game winning streaks.
But so far in the 2013 campaign, the Clippers have owned the Spurs. L.A. throttled the Spurs, 106-84, on Nov. 7 at the Staples Center, then bested San Antonio in its own building 12 days later.
"The Clippers are one hell of a team," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after his team's victory Tuesday night in Sacramento.
And the Clips certainly respect their opponent, especially in the midst of a Spurs run that has seen them win 15 of their last 16 games.
"San Antonio is playing at a very high level as they always do," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We obviously have to play very well and execute our plan, be able to make some adjustments. So we'll see."
The Spurs are on their season-long, nine-game rodeo road trip. They are 5-1 to this point and got to that mark with a 108-102 victory Tuesday against the Kings.
Tony Parker was sensational against Sacramento. He accounted for 30 points and 11 assists, although he did commit seven turnovers.
"He picked up where he left off before the All-Star break," Popovich said. "He's having an unbelievable year. He just keeps doing it. Very committed, very focused, he's done for us tonight what he's done for us all year."
Parker has averaged 29.0 ppg and 9.0 apg over his last five, but his lowest scoring output of the season came in that first game against the Clippers when he only managed four points. Parker only had 11 in the rematch.
Thursday will mark the Clippers first outing since after the All-Star break. It was in Houston for the showcase game where Chris Paul walked off with MVP honors and he will try to push his squad toward the No. 1 seed in the West, currently occupied by San Antonio.
"The plan is to pick up where we left off," Paul said on Wednesday. "Obviously, we had a week until our last game last Thursday and then we play again tomorrow. It's a good test for us to get back out on the court against the Spurs, get our legs back up under us and just start."
The Clippers play their first three after the break at home and own a seven- game lead in the Pacific Division. They won four straight before the All-Star break, including a 125-101 drubbing of their neighbors, the Los Angeles Lakers one week ago.
The Clips jumped on the Lakers in the first quarter, winning that frame by 14. They were 21 clear to start the fourth and cruised to victory, thanks in part to 24 points and 13 assists from Paul.
Despite the early-season losses, the Spurs have won 10 of their last 12 on the road against the Clippers.