The Bulls and the Utah Jazz come together for the second and final time this evening in Salt Lake City. In the first meeting, the Jazz blew away the Bulls, 120-95 in the Windy City behind a game-high 30 points from Donovan Mitchell, and fellow All-Star Rudy Gobert who contributed 21 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high nine blocks.
Zach LaVine led Chicago with 27 points, while Thaddeus Young added 14 points and nine rebounds.
These teams head into tonight's matchup on different trajectories. Chicago has lost five straight games after Wednesday's 121-116 loss to the Suns in Phoenix, while the Jazz have won seven straight after beating the Grizzlies, 111-107, Wednesday in Memphis.
As for tonight, the Bulls might have to take the floor without LaVine and second-year guard Coby White, as well as veteran Garrett Temple, as all three missed the Phoenix game on Wednesday with injuries. As of this writing, both LaVine (sprained right ankle) and White (neck spasms) are listed as questionable, while Temple (strained right hamstring) looks to be out of action entirely. Needless to say, these injuries don't bode well for Chicago's playoff hopes considering the Bulls currently sit 10th in the East at 19-27.
Tonight, also marks the end of a tough five-game Western road swing for the Bulls, who return home for an Easter Sunday matinee against the East leading Brooklyn Nets before hitting the road again for a second five-game trip, this time with stops in Indiana, Tampa to meet Toronto, followed by visits to Atlanta, Minnesota, and Memphis.
The Bulls come into tonight averaging 112.7 points while shooting 47.8% from the field. Defensively, Chicago is allowing 114.0 points on 47.6% shooting.
Chicago will need to rely heavily on Nikola Vučević and Thaddeus Young to have big games if they're to hang in there against the Jazz.
While Vučević and Young are frontcourt players, each are terrific passers. They're unselfish and smart players who can score on their own down in the paint, but this evening they'll need to become a threat from outside in order to draw Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Rudy Gobert, away from the hoop to generate easy looks for teammates at the rim and/or from beyond the arc.
As a team, the Bulls shoot an impressive 37% from downtown and 80.5% from the free throw line. They also rank 8th in assists with a mark of 26.3 per game.
For Chicago's offense to run smoothy the ball must freely jump from player-to-player. Relentless, swift, decisive passing forces defenses to overreact, and in time, miss assignments. Quick sharing of the ball also helps to free up driving lanes to the rim and open looks for shooters outside. Most importantly, the Bulls, especially if LaVine or White aren't available, must avoid slowing down the team's pace by relying on an isolation strategy where one player looks to take on his defender one-on-one. Selfless distribution of the ball with constant movement in and out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc oftentimes produces an efficient and effective offensive attack.
One other key thing Chicago must accomplish tonight is to do a great job of taking care of the ball, keeping turnovers to no more than a dozen. Even at full-strength, the Bulls' margin for error is very small, especially when taking on one of the very best teams in the game today.
Utah enters tonight averaging 116.8 points on 47.8% shooting while giving up just 107.5 points on 44.7% from the field. Mitchell leads the way with 25.7 points and 5.5 assists while Jordan Clarkson comes off the pine to contribute 17.3 points. All-Star floor general Mike Conley is the team's third leading scorer at 16.4 points per game while Gobert mans the middle clocking in at 14.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks a night.
The Jazz are the NBA's top 3-point shooting team, knocking down an average of 17 triples on 42.9 attempts, hitting 39.6% from beyond the arc. On average, Clarkson leads the charge with 8.7 attempts, hitting 34.9%, while Mitchell takes 8.6 but is more lethal from downtown at 39.9%. Conley is no slouch, either, as the wily veteran launches 6.5 shots from deep and hits 41.5%.
Two more Jazz snipers to worry about are starters Joe Ingles, who attempts 5.5 long ones a game, and ranks 3rd in the league at 48.7%, and 6'8 forward Bojan Bogdanović, who averages 14.7 points a game while shooting 38.6% from deep.
Thus, Chicago will need to focus a lot of their defensive attention to running shooters off the 3-point line this evening. So far this season the Bulls have done a solid job in this area, as they rank 3rd in the league, allowing just 11.4 makes while opponents connect on only 35.1% of their shots.
Besides shutting down the 3-point arc, Chicago must look to close off the paint and do whatever is necessary to stop Gobert from dominating under the basket and commanding the boards at both ends of the floor. One way to do so would be to spread out and allow a ballhandler to relentlessly attack Gobert at the rim, forcing contact and get him into early foul trouble.
Even under the very best of circumstances, pulling off an upset on the road against one of, if not the best team in the league, would be a longshot. However, if the Bulls hit the hardwood with a chip on their shoulder and aggressively run out of the gate right from the start, sustaining that type of intensity for all four quarters, they'll always give themselves a shot of posting a signature victory, no matter the opponent.