The Bulls tip-off the second half of the season hosting the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers. Tonight's contest is the second of three scheduled between the teams. The third and final time will be here at the United Center on May 3rd.
In the first meeting that took place on February 19th in Philadelphia, it was the 76ers coming away with a 112-105 victory thanks to strongman Joel Embiid's career night. The former Kansas Jayhawk was literally unstoppable, posting a career-high 50 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals. Philly wingman Tobias Harris also added 22 points and 12 rebounds.
The 76ers were forced to play without All-Star playmaker Ben Simmons (illness) for the second straight game, but his absence did not slow them down, as Philadelphia's victory clinched All-Star coaching duties for the team's Headmaster, Doc Rivers.
Chicago's All-Star, Zach LaVine, led the Bulls that night with a team-high 30 points, while Wendell Carter Jr. chipped in 15 and Thad Young came off the bench to contribute 12 points and nine rebounds.
With the 76ers clinging to a 107-103 lead, Embiid blocked LaVine's driving attempt with 1:02 remaining, then hit a 17-foot baseline jumper with 41 seconds left to seal the outcome of the game.
The Bulls come into tonight sporting a 16-18 record after sweeping the New Orleans Pelicans, 128-124, down in the Big Easy prior to the league taking a short hiatus for the All-Star Game in Atlanta this past weekend.
Once again it was LaVine who led the way, capping a 36-point performance with a driving layup and four free throws during the final minute to hold off a late Pels rally. LaVine hit 12 of 19 shots, going 4 of 8 from deep and hitting all eight of his free throws. He also handed out eight assists. Bulls' veteran forward Thad Young also doled out plenty of punishment, scoring 18 points and blocking three shots, while Carter Jr. grabbed 15 rebounds to lead Chicago on the glass.
As great as LaVine has been this year, the Bulls are going to need his teammates to step up on a consistent basis if they are to continue taking steps forward. Some of that consistency could come with the healthy returns of forwards Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr., who as of this writing, are on the verge of returning to the floor this evening.
Due to a variety of circumstances, Markkanen has only been able to play in 14 of Chicago's 34 games. When he has played, he has been very effective, averaging a career-high 19.1 points and shooting a career-best .514 from the field, as well as .396 from long distance. The 7'1 Finn has been sidelined with a sprained right shoulder suffered against Orlando on February 5th. The Bulls could certainly use Markkanen's size and marksmanship heading into the second half.
As for Porter Jr., he has played in only 16 games, missing the last 15 in a row with low back spasms. For the most part, Chicago's plan this season was for Porter Jr. to provide a spark off the bench. When he has been healthy, he has done just that, delivering 11.6 points in 23.3 minutes.
A primary defensive objective for Chicago is to stay alert at all times, calling out to one another and quickly rotating to close down open driving lanes in the paint and openings under the basket. A major break that helps Chicago's chances occurred during All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, as both Embiid and Simmons were put on ice for a week due to the NBA's Covid health and safety protocols. Neither All-Star will be in the lineup this evening. Embiid is eligible to return tomorrow when the 76ers are in Washington, while Simmons must wait until Sunday.
In any event, the most important aspect for tonight will be how well the Bulls execute their plan of attack. To succeed offensively, Chicago must freely move the ball, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, forcing the 76ers to burn extra energy defending the hoop. The ball cannot get stuck in LaVine's hands or anyone else's for more than one or two beats. Everybody must constantly look to contribute in some way. Ending up a spectator will not cut it.
A major key for the Bulls is to always play fast, while making sure to take care of the ball, limiting turnovers to a minimum of no more than 12 per outing. Constant player and ball movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the 3-point arc, creates a free-flowing rhythm and forces defenses to breakdown.
Another important aspect Chicago must strive to perfect is its ability to effectively communicate and work together at both ends of the floor. With each outing the Bulls have gotten better, but there is more work to do.
To that end, Chicago must continue to outhustle opponents in every way, and never back off from a challenge. They must apply pressure up and down the floor and refuse to allow the opposition any opportunity to dictate the pace of the game.
If the Bulls hit the hardwood sporting a feisty attitude and charge out of the chute from the start, maintaining that intensity throughout the night, they will give themselves a real shot of starting this imposing stretch of five games (all at home) in seven nights on the right foot with a signature victory.