The Chicago Bulls hope the season's final two months will include the return of Derrick Rose. They've remained in the playoff hunt without him, but Chicago's backcourt - also dealing with other injuries - may be starting to buckle.
Playing much better basketball after a dismal start, the New Orleans Hornets would have preferred to skip the All-Star break altogether. Instead, they'll try to win for the fifth time in six games when they host the Bulls on Tuesday night.
A return date has still not been set for Rose, who has been rehabbing his knee after tearing his ACL in the first game of last year's playoffs. Rose was initially expected to come back some time after the break but told USA Today missing the entire season was a possibility.
"I'm feeling good, but like I said, if it's to where it's taking me a long time and I'm still not feeling right, I don't mind missing this year," said Rose, who participated in five-on-five drills Monday.
Without Rose, Chicago has still clawed its way to a 30-22 record primarily on the strength of its defense, which is holding opponents to 43.3 percent shooting to rank third in the NBA. But the Bulls are 1-4 over their last five games, a stretch in which they've allowed opponents to average 100.4 points on 49.6 percent shooting.
They've finished both seasons under coach Tom Thibodeau among the top three in opponents' field-goal percentage.
"We have to grind," Thibodeau said. "We have to do it collectively. We have to play with great intensity. We can't take shortcuts."
Sloppy ballhandling also reared its head in losses to San Antonio and Boston before the break, with Chicago totaling 41 turnovers. Kirk Hinrich, who leads Chicago with a 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, has missed seven straight games after having an infection in his right elbow cleaned out. He is listed as day-to-day.
Chicago had won eight in a row in this series before New Orleans claimed an 89-82 road victory Nov. 3, holding the Bulls to 33.0 percent shooting despite playing without Anthony Davis.
The Hornets started 5-22 but have since gone 14-12. After a 99-63 home win over Portland on Wednesday - their largest margin of victory since beating Atlanta by 41 points Jan. 21, 2011 - they have an opportunity for only their second three-game winning streak.
Point guard Greivis Vasquez is averaging 15.2 points and 10.2 assists while shooting 54.7 percent over the last five games as New Orleans has gone 4-1.
"We are playing Hornets basketball right now, and we are making progress and we are continuing to play hard," Vasquez said. "I know I'm understanding the game much better. I now see things that I didn't see before."
Davis, who missed November's matchup with a concussion, had shot 1 for 13 in two games before finishing 10 of 17 for 21 points with 11 rebounds against the Trail Blazers.
Vasquez led the Hornets (19-34) with 18 points in the first meeting while Luol Deng paced the Bulls with 19. Joakim Noah is averaging 12.5 points and 14.3 rebounds in his last six games against New Orleans.