The Bulls are back on the road tonight, this time stopping in Minneapolis/St. Paul to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves for the second and final time this year.
Chicago came out on top in the first meeting in January at the United Center, 117-110. Seven Bulls reached double figures led by Zach LaVine's 25 and Lauri Markkanen with 21.
Chicago sprinted to a nine-point lead after one quarter and extended its advantage to 19 halfway into the second, but as often has been the case, they began feeling a bit too comfortable, allowing the Wolves slowly, but surely to chip away and get back in the game. LaVine, ultimately took matters into his own hands down the stretch, scoring seven points in the final 2:25, including a clutch 3-pointer at the 1:26 mark to push Chicago to the win.
Minnesota's Karl Anthony-Towns posted a season-high 40 points that night, making 16 of 24 shots, including 4 of 8 from downtown. The since traded Andrew Wiggins posted 25 points — all but three in the second half — while Shabazz Napier, also shipped out at the February trade deadline, chipped in 16 points and seven rebounds.
In their last game the Bulls defeated the Dallas Mavericks, 109-107, on Monday at the UC without LaVine, who missed his first contest with a left quad injury. The 6'5 guard has been on a tear as Chicago's leading scorer this season at 25.5 per game. Before going down, he had been averaging 27.9 points while shooting 49.7% from the field and 40.0% from behind the arc, along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists over his last nine games.
Normally when a team loses its leading scorer, the chances of coming away with a victory are not very good. However, Chicago finally got some good news before the Dallas game as both Otto Porter Jr. and Denzel Valentine made their way into the lineup after long layoffs due to injuries. Porter Jr., who hadn't played since November 6th with a broken foot, came off the bench to score 18 points in 17 minutes, while Valentine, who had missed seven in a row with hamstring tightness, stepped in for LaVine and posted a season-high 17 points. LaVine has already been declared out for tonight, but there's a good chance Lauri Markkanen might be back in action after being away since January 22nd with a hip problem. If Markkanen does play, much like Porter Jr. and Valentine the last time, he'll be under a minutes restriction. But, so what? Fifteen to twenty minutes of Lauri Markkanen playing is much better than zero.
As for the Timberwolves, tonight is the second game of a back-to-back set as they knocked off New Orleans last night, 139-134, down in the Bayou. Newly acquired swingman Malik Beasley paced the Wolves with a team-high 28, while fellow newcomer, D'Angelo Russell, added 23. Karl Anthony-Towns did not play as he's nursing a fractured left wrist suffered in early February.
Before last night's victory, the Wolves had lost seven of their last eight, including two-in-a-row. Tonight's contest marks the beginning of a three-game homestand for them, although that may not be a good thing as so far this year, have only won seven times on their own floor.
For Chicago to keep its momentum going forward they will need to come up with another hardnosed effort in every phase of tonight's game. They certainly could use another fast start, but they must also come up with a way to keep their energy flowing until the final horn.
Every time the Bulls take the floor it's vital they play selflessly, freely sharing the ball, skipping it continually from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while also exploring ways to get to the rim. All five players must constantly stay involved in the action. For the offense to produce positive results everyone must play an active role. The game plan simply cannot switch to a series of one-on-one battles.
Defensively, Chicago must establish a blue-collar mentality and keep that attitude throughout the night.
Currently the Bulls lead the NBA in forcing turnovers (18.0) and taking full advantage of those miscues in leading the league in scoring off turnovers (21.2 per game).
The Bulls need to communicate and trust one another at both ends of the floor. Defensively, they must turn up the heat, pressuring the ball up and down the floor, and recognize opportunities to jump passing lanes and double-team shooters along the 3-point arc and in the corners.
Collectively, Chicago must be willing to lay everything on the line by going hard after every loose ball as well focusing attention to taking control of the boards.
If the Bulls can achieve most, if not all these goals this evening, they'll force Minnesota into scrambling and fail to find a comfortable rhythm from which to operate.