Starting tonight the Bulls begin a three-game road trek in Indianapolis, meeting up with their longtime Central Division rivals, the Indiana Pacers, for the third time in 2019-20. The two hooked up a little less than three weeks ago in Chicago, with Indy, despite Bulls guard Zach LaVine's game-high 43-point night, capturing a 116-105 victory. It was Indiana's second win over the Bulls this season, and seventh straight over the last couple of years. In fact, the Pacers have won 10 of the last 11 meetings between the two.
In any event, Chicago hits the hardwood coming off an exciting 110-109 comeback victory over San Antonio at the UC the other night. Per usual, LaVine led the Bulls' attack, this time scoring 14 of his game-high 23 in the fourth quarter, rallying Chicago from an 11-point deficit. LaVine connected on 4-of-8 shots down the stretch and added a pair of clutch free throws with 2.1 seconds left to put Chicago ahead for good. It was his 15th consecutive game of 20-or-more points.
However, as good as the 24-year old All-Star hopeful was on Monday, Chicago's victory was not a one-man show. Six other Bulls players posted double-digits in scoring led by swingman Denzel Valentine's 16 off-the-bench. Kris Dunn also produced an impressive effort in putting up 10 points, grabbing six rebounds, handing out eight assists, and collecting three steals. Veterans Thad Young (13 points, nine rebounds) and Tomas Satoransky (13 points and six assists), along with fill-in starting center, Luke Kornet (12 points, nine rebounds and three assists), were also major contributors.
For Indiana, tonight marks the healthy return of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, who will make his season debut after recovering from ruptured quadriceps muscle suffered a little over a year ago. Despite his long absence, the Pacers were able to make the playoffs last year and come in tonight 17-5 at home and 30-17 overall.
Indiana Head Coach Nate McMillan says Oladipo will be on a minutes restriction through the upcoming All-Star break, however he's declined to say exactly just how many minutes Oladipo will play tonight or going forward.
Speaking of injuries, as of this writing, the Pacers list two starters as questionable in guard Malcolm Brogdon (concussion protocol) and center Myles Turner (illness). The last time the teams met in Chicago, Turner notched a double-double of 27 points and 14 rebounds. So, if he does sit out tonight, his absence should end up being a plus for the Bulls. Yet having said that, Chicago Head Coach Jim Boylen has also been forced to shuffle his lineup thanks to a rash of injuries. Late last week he lost starting forward Lauri Markkanen for anywhere between four-to-six weeks with a hip/pelvis injury, while Otto Porter Jr. (broken foot) and Wendell Carter Jr. (high ankle sprain), and backup center Daniel Gafford (dislocated thumb) continue to sit and heal as well, with everyone hoping to return around the All-Star break next month.
To be successful offensively, the Bulls must always play unselfishly, openly sharing the ball, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side at a quick and steady pace, while also searching for cracks in the defense to exploit opportunities to attack the rim.
All five players on the floor must stay involved in the action. Chicago can't settle in allowing the ball to wind up stuck in any one player's hands while the rest stand and watch. Simply put, the Bulls' offense can't transform itself into to a series of isolation, one-on-one battles. It must be free flowing, yet aggressive and compel Indiana to expend extra energy on defense.
And with regards to defense, the Bulls must play with a chip on their shoulders and deliver a hardnosed effort up and down the floor. Collectively, Chicago must go hard after every rebound and loose ball, and consistently outhustle and attempt to outexecute the Pacers in every way.
To achieve these goals Chicago needs to take the floor focused and poised, communicating well with one another at both ends of the court, and defensively, quickly recognize the right moments to speed up the pace by jumping passing lanes and double-teaming the ball to force Indiana to scramble and turn the ball over, giving themselves the chance to take possession and streak down to the other end to post easy scores with little or no opposition in their way.
To wind up as the last team standing at the end of the night, Chicago is going to need positive contributions from everyone — starters and reserves — up-and-down the bench. The last time the Bulls won inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse was on March 29, 2016 (98-96). It's way past time for Chicago to turn the page and collect a much needed victory over a longtime nemesis.