Tonight the Bulls make their only visit to Salt Lake City to meet the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Tonight is also the second half of a back-to-back set of games for both teams as last night Chicago visited Golden State, while the Jazz battled the Los Angeles Lakers here in Utah.
Last season the Bulls and Jazz split their season series, with each winning at home. The two have faced each other 100 times over the years with Chicago holding a 53-47 edge overall. However, the Jazz have been pretty good at home, winning 29 of 50.
Prior to last night Utah's Donovan Mitchell has been on fire. Through the team's first five games (not including last night) this month, the second-year guard out of Louisville has averaged 24.4 points, 4.2 assist, and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 47.1% (16-of-34) from behind the 3-point arc. For the season, he leads all NBA sophomores in scoring at 20.7 points.
In the contest prior to last night Mitchell shot a blistering 57.1% from the field (12-of-21) in notching a game-high 33 points (his fifth 30-point game this season), to go along with seven assists to lead the Jazz over Orlando, 106-93.
So far Utah is 19-6 whenever Mitchell posts six or more assists, and 12-2 whenever he shoots 45.0% or better from the field.
Mitchell's stellar play has also gone a long way to help keep the Jazz afloat while point guards Ricky Rubio (hamstring strain) and Dante Exum (ankle sprain) have been sidelined with injuries. Both Rubio and Exum are likely to miss tonight's game, thus Utah will be looking not only to Mitchell, but third-string floor general, Raul Neto, to keep themselves on track.
Neto made his first start the other night against Orlando and more than held his own, chipping in 10 points, three assists and three rebounds in 30 minutes of action. In fact, he led the team in +/- with a +22.
Besides Mitchell and Neto, the Jazz also present a number of other tough challenges. Starting center Rudy Gobert stands 7'1” and currently ranks second in the league in double-doubles (33). Aptly nicknamed “The Stifle Tower,” the 26-year old Frenchman was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year last season. This year he's played every game and leads the league in shooting (65.4%) and averages 14.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Gobert is unique in a number of ways, but one of the most important for the Jazz is his ability to defend not only the rim, but change shots out on the perimeter. He's an elite defender and when he's in the game, the Jazz are the league's second-best defensive team.
Offensively, Gobert is a dunk machine. He won't shoot more than five feet away from the rim, but he's most certainly eager to posterize anyone attempting to stop him from going at the iron.
Another big man Chicago must pay attention to is veteran power forward Derrick Favors, who has been a pest on the offensive glass this year in averaging 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Sixth man Jae Crowder's ability to knock down clutch threes also helps to open up the floor for Mitchell, Gobert and fellow sniper Joe Ingles on the opposite side of the court. Crowder is a true blue-collar, hard hat, lunch pail glue guy, much in the mold of former Bulls forward and Chicago fan favorite Taj Gibson, as both men create havoc by simply hustling and sacrificing their bodies all over the hardwood.
One more Jazzman to keep an eye on tonight is another ex-Bull, Kyle Korver, who returned to Utah via trade earlier this season from Cleveland. The veteran 37-year old three-point specialist is putting up 9.0 points while shooting almost 40% from behind the arc.
For Chicago to have chance they're going to need to play a smart and aggressive game. Offensively, the Bulls need to make Utah burn extra energy by running them into a steady stream of picks while also playing keep away with the ball.
Under new head coach Jim Boylen, Chicago has tried to slow the pace of games by keeping the ball jumping between players while the shot clock runs down to under five seconds before launching a shot. To succeed at the slow game, the Bulls have to force opponents to battle their way through a countless number of screens while at the same time focus their attention on defending the perimeter as well as the paint. For this scheme to prove effective everyone must freely share the ball stay focused, and be willing to attack the basket whenever an opportunity presents. Heading into this weekend the Bulls had scored 50 or more points in the paint in four straight games, their longest streak in the last 10 seasons. Since January 2, they rank 4th in the league in scoring down low at 57.0 per game.