The Chicago Bulls swing through the Louisiana Bayou this evening to take on the New Orleans Pelicans in the first of two get-togethers on the docket this season. The two teams will hook up a second and final time next month at the United Center.
On Monday in Dallas, the Bulls came up on the wrong side of the scoresheet, falling to the hometown Mavericks, 118-110. Lauri Markkanen led Chicago's attack, shooting 10-for-18 from the field (4-of-10 from downtown) in posting a team-best 26 points. The 7'1, second-year Finn also came up big on the boards with nine rebounds, while Zach LaVine notched 20 points and handed out seven assists. LaVine's backcourt mate, Tomas Satoransky, had a tough shooting night (3-of-12), but still contributed in a positive way, dishing a game-high 14 assists to go along with 11 points, five rebounds while only committing a single turnover. Rookies Coby White and Daniel Gafford also played well for the Bulls off the bench. White connected on 6-of-10 shots, including 3-of-5 from behind the arc to score 15 points in 21 minutes, while Gafford provided boundless energy and intimidating rim protection, especially after starting pivot Wendell Carter Jr. left the game early with a badly sprained ankle. Gafford was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a couple of shots in in 25 minutes. Its likely Carter Jr. will sit out tonight's contest, so look for Gafford to log significant minutes in the middle this evening.
As for New Orleans, like the Bulls, they also loss their last time out, 128-126 to the Utah Jazz. The game was tight throughout, with 18 lead changes and 11 ties. Brandon Ingram led the Pels with 35 points while veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick pitched in 23, and floor general Lonzo Ball posted 21 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. New Orleans also played shorthanded in that the team's second-leading scorer, Jrue Holiday (19.6 points per game), missed his first game of the season with a badly bruised left elbow. As of this writing Holiday's availability against the Bulls is up in the air.
Another guy everyone is looking forward to seeing play soon is New Orleans forward Zion Williamson. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick is almost ready to lace up his playing shoes and take the floor for the first time after suffering a knee injury late in the preseason. Williamson averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 71.4% from the field in four preseason games before getting hurt. The latest word out of the Big Easy says he won't play tonight against the Bulls, but with any luck he'll be back in action the next time the two teams tangle in the Windy City in early February.
As for the keys to capturing this evening's contest, Chicago is going to need to produce a hardscrabble, blue-collar effort at both ends of the floor.
To be successful on offense the Bulls have to play unselfishly, openly sharing the ball with one another, constantly skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while exploiting every opportunity to attack the front of the rim to force the defense onto its heels.
At both ends of the floor all five players must stay involved in the action. Offensively the ball can't end up stuck in any one player's hands. The offense can't become a series of isolation, one-on-one challenges.
Defensively, the Bulls must produce a rough and tumble effort with everyone sticking close to their assigned man, constantly making life difficult for him to create space or maneuver freely about. Collectively, Chicago must also go hard after every rebound and loose ball and fervently outhustle and outexecute New Orleans in every way possible.
Although the Pelicans come into tonight sporting a 12-25 record on the season, they have been playing well of late, winning five of their last seven games.
To be the last team standing tonight Chicago will need to do a solid job of communicating on defense and recognizing the right time to aggressively jump passing lanes and double-team the ball. Wendell Carter Jr. has been a sturdy defensive force in the paint all season long, so his likely absence this evening will put added pressure on everyone else to help pick up the slack.