Tonight the Bulls host the surging Brooklyn Nets who visit the United Center for the first time. Last night in Flatbush, the Nets used a balanced attack to knock-off LeBron James and the LA Lakers, 115-110. It was Brooklyn's sixth straight win, moving them to 14-18 on the year.
As for the Bulls, they return home after a three-game road trip that took them to Mexico City, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Chicago fell 97-91 to Orlando in Mexico, but showed a lot of heart in battling back from a 21-point deficit in the opening half to defeat the Spurs, 98-93, last Saturday. However they crash landed back to earth the next time out in OKC as the Thunder rolled to a 121-96 victory. That loss dropped Chicago to 2-5 under new head coach Jim Boylen.
The Bulls have been forced to play without leading man, Zach LaVine (23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists), the last two games after he suffered an ankle injury on the final play in Mexico City a week ago. LaVine has already been declared out for tonight's contest, and it's very much up in the air as to when he might make it back to the court. His absence is simply another colossal bump in a long and rocky road the Bulls have been forced to travel regarding injuries to key players.
Regular starting power forward Lauri Markkanen missed the first 23 games of the season with an elbow injury. Starting point guard Kris Dunn missed the first two for personal reasons then suffered a badly sprained MCL late in his debut, and was sidelined for the next 24. Sixth man Bobby Portis started in Markkanen's place during the opening four games but suffered the same fate as Dunn and was sidelined for 22 games. If those hurts weren't enough, another key bench player, Denzel Valentine, never got to the floor after suffering an ankle injury in training camp. Valentine's damage forced him to undergo season-ending surgery in November.
If the Bulls are to stop or at least slow the bleeding this evening they're going to have to put forth a gritty effort in every way. Brooklyn's plan of attack is to get off to a fast start and run downhill from tip to final buzzer. Coming into tonight, they are +54 in first quarter scoring, trailing only Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston in the East. Last season they ranked 28th in the league with a mark of -182 in the opening 12 minutes.
Fifth year point guard D'Angelo Russell is enjoying a breakout season, averaging 18 points and 6 assists in 29 minutes. Starting backcourt mate Joe Harris is putting up 13.3 while shooting a ridiculous 46.3% from behind the arc, while second-year big man Jarrett Allen has proven to be an effective rim protector and solid post player under the hoop.
Against the Lakers yesterday, Russell notched 22 points and handed out a career-high tying 13 assists, while Harris shot 7-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-4 from distance for 19 points and 0 turnovers. Allen produced another blue collar effort of 6 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks, one of which stuffed LeBron James at the rim that turned the tide of the game to the Nets' favor.
Another effective offensive Brooklyn threat the Bulls will need to keep close tabs on is Spencer Dinwiddie, who had a brief stint with Chicago and the G League Windy City Bulls back in 2016. The 6'6” lightning bolt combo guard comes off the bench and is Brooklyn's third leading scorer at 17.2 points a game.
Dinwiddie is the embodiment of perseverance. In college he tore an ACL and began his pro career as an end-of-the-bench, practice player with Detroit before the Bulls traded for him prior to the start of the 2016-17 season. At the end of training camp Chicago decided to release him, but then re-signed him to play with the Windy City Bulls, where he tore up the G League and the Nets took notice and grabbed Dinwiddie for themselves.
For the Bulls to have a shot of coming out on top tonight they're going to need to get everyone involved in the action at both ends of the floor.
Offensively Chicago can't allow their plan to develop into succession of ball-stopping, one-on-one battles. They need to make the ball jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the defense to react and expend energy.
The Bulls also have to be smart with the ball and limit turnovers. The other night in OKC they were exceedingly sloppy in committing 23 turnovers, which led to the Thunder outscoring them 27-9 in fastbreak points. In contrast, in the San Antonio win over the weekend, Chicago turned the ball over just seven times, and they won the fastbreak game, outscoring the Spurs 13-11.
Another important factor will be limit the Nets' opportunities from the 3-point arc. Brooklyn ranks 5th in 3-point attempts at 34.3 per game, and 4th in makes at 12.3. Offensively the first thing they'll look to do is fire from behind the arc. Chicago cannot let them launch without putting a hand in the face of every shooter. There has to be a concerted effort to run the Nets off the bend at all times. Russell (6.8 3-FGA / 37.0%), Dinwiddie (5.3 3-FGA /.36.5%) and Harris (5.1 3-FGA / 46.3%) are their primary threats from deep.