Lakers center Dwight Howard battles Bulls center Joakim Noah for a rebound… (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated…)
The Lakers (32-31) will face one of the best defensive teams in the league Sunday afternoon when the Chicago Bulls (35-27) visit Staples Center.
The two met in Chicago on Jan. 21, with the Bulls dominating the fourth quarter, 26-14, to earn a 12-point victory. Kirk Hinrich had a huge game with 22 points on nine-for-11 shooting and eight assists.
It's unclear whether Hinrich will be able to suit up Sunday as he struggles through a foot injury. Star guard Derrick Rose is trying to work his way back from a serious knee injury but isn't likely to play either.
Backup forward Taj Gibson is also out with a knee sprain. Guard Rip Hamilton is out with back spasms.
Although the Bulls are not at full strength, they're still a dangerous opponent.
Joakim Noah is one of the best defensive centers in the league. He's mobile enough to bother guards on the pick and roll but strong enough to play a center such as Dwight Howard with double-team help.
Noah made his first All-Star team this season. He's averaging 11.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 blocks a game.
Howard was held to only eight points and nine rebounds with five fouls in the loss to Chicago. Noah scored only six points, but he blocked six shots and pulled in 13 rebounds.
The Lakers need Howard to continue his run of improved play since the All-Star break.
The short-handed Bulls have two players who seem to always give the Lakers a challenge -- Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli.
Robinson is a quick, explosive scorer who gave the Lakers a lot to handle when playing with the Boston Celtics.
Belinelli hit a clutch game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz on Friday -- his fourth game-winner in the final minute of the season for Chicago.
The Lakers are going to need to keep Chicago's backcourt limited. The Bulls aren't a high-scoring squad. Slow down Robinson and Belinelli and the Lakers should have the advantage.
Steve Blake has been a quiet, steadying force off the Lakers' bench. He's helped the offense run more smoothly but is also a feisty defender.
Blake may not be an elite player in the league, but the Lakers have had a lot more success with him on the floor than previous reserves Darius Morris and Chris Duhon.
The Lakers have pushed themselves to the limits the last couple of games, gutting out two impressive wins. On the other hand, those victories came against two lottery-bound teams (Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Hornets).
If the Lakers get down early to Chicago, they're going to have a much harder time coming back against the Bulls' stifling defense.
The Lakers might be due for a letdown and the Bulls, short-handed as they are, are a real threat to deliver it.