February 25, 2015

With Chicago's center fresh off his best game of the season and Charlotte's big man out, the next matchup between these two teams could be decided in the paint.

Pau Gasol hopes to deliver inside again for the Bulls on Saturday night against the visiting Hornets, who will again try to fill the void left by Al Jefferson.

Gasol posted a monster game on Wednesday as Chicago (11-5) beat Denver 99-90 for its seventh win in nine games. The 7-footer finished with season highs of 26 points and 19 rebounds, including 12 points and 10 boards in the fourth quarter.

It was just his second 20-point game of the season, and he reached it on 12-of-19 shooting while adding four blocks.

With Derrick Rose continuing his shooting struggles and Nikola Mirotic leaving in the first quarter with a concussion and facial laceration, the Bulls leaned heavily on the 15-year veteran for a come-from-behind win over the last-place Nuggets.

"He's a smart player," Rose told the team's official website after finishing with 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting. "He's a big who is very smart, who can pass the ball and read the play."

After two days off, Gasol will try to help the Bulls improve on their 7-1 record at the United Center, where they play seven of their next eight.

They may be without Mirotic, who has started all 16 games at power forward. He needed 10 stitches to close the gash he suffered from an inadvertent elbow, and he is in the NBA's concussion protocol. Joakim Noah started the second half, and Taj Gibson and rookie Bobby Portis could see additional minutes if Mirotic is unable to go.

With Rose shooting 27.1 percent in his last four games and Jimmy Butler failing to score 20 in his last three, Chicago may need to focus its offense around Gasol again. He had 13 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes of a 130-105 loss to the Hornets on Nov. 3, but followed with 19 points and 13 boards in a 102-97 win 10 days later.

Gasol should draw a favorable matchup in the third meeting. The Hornets (10-8) lost Jefferson for two to three weeks when he strained his left calf in Charlotte's 87-82 win over Milwaukee on Sunday.

The Hornets were outrebounded 53-41 in their first contest without him Wednesday, a 116-99 loss to Golden State as they finished a 5-2 homestand with their second defeat in three games.

''You can't pick and choose when you're going to be physical,'' coach Steve Clifford said.

Charlotte is minus-2.2 in rebound differential this season while Chicago is minus-1.5.

With Jefferson out, Clifford can choose between Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes for the starting center spot. Zeller started against Golden State, and even after finishing with six points to Kaminsky's season-high 16 and Hawes' 12, Clifford said he will run with the same plan on Saturday.

"Like any other situation, you have five guys you think are best at that time," Clifford said. "We're going to start the same five guys (Saturday)."

Butler torched Charlotte for 26 and 27 points in the first two meetings, while the Hornets' Nicolas Batum scored 28 in the most recent.

The Bulls have won five of the last six meetings at the United Center.

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