Tonight, the Bulls return home hoping to get back on track in closing the book on the season series against the New Orleans Pelicans. The first time the teams met occurred in early January down in the Big Easy, where the Pels ended up running away with a 123-108 victory. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with a game-high 32 points, while Kris Dunn tied a career-high with five steals. However, a 44-27 third quarter in favor of New Orleans proved to be the difference in the game. Seven Pels scored in double figures, including all five starters. Wings Brandon Ingram (29) and JJ Redick (24) each produced 20-point efforts.
As for tonight, the Bulls take the floor having lost three in a row (all on the road), after having won three of four, prior. On Sunday, they came up on the wrong side for the third time in three tries against defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors, 129-102. Veteran Thaddeus Young, starting his sixth game this year, led Chicago's attack with 21 points, while LaVine added 18, to go along with seven rebounds and seven assists. LaVine's 18 points marked the end of a personal 17-game streak of posting 20 or more.
Second-year forward Chandler Hutchison, who also started against the Raptors, but in his case for the first time this season, notched 17 points, while Ryan Arcidiacono and rookie Coby While each chipped in a dozen off the bench. Unfortunately, all those positives couldn't prevent the Bulls falling to 8-18 on the road, and 19-33 overall.
The Raptors game also marked the first Chicago had to take to the floor without Kris Dunn, who against Brooklyn on Friday ended up in the trainer's room after only 13 seconds after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament to his right knee. Dunn's injury adds to a long list of miseries the team has endured this year.
Currently Chicago's injured list not only consists of Dunn, but also starting forward Lauri Markkanen (stress reaction, right side of pelvis), starting center Wendell Carter Jr. (high ankle sprain), and starting small forward Otto Porter Jr. (fractured foot). Backup center Daniel Gafford is also hurting, recently coming off a dislocated thumb and high ankle sprain of his own. Gafford played against Toronto, but his wobbly wheel greatly affected his mobility, and thus as of this writing, he may not be able to play tonight.
As for New Orleans, they visit the UC at 20-31 on the year after blowing a 10-point lead and losing at home to Milwaukee on Tuesday, 120-108. The Bucks, who sport a league-best 43-7 (.860) record, tightened up their defense after halftime and took control and never looked back, outscoring the Pels 42-24 in the third quarter, and 62-47 in the second half.
All-Star forward Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while rookie phenom Zion Williamson added 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists. It was Williamson's third consecutive (and fifth overall) 20+ point effort in seven games played this season.
The first year forward suffered torn meniscus during the preseason and missed the first 44 games of the year. Against the Bucks the other day he suffered a minor toe sprain but as of this writing he's expected to play through the injury tonight. On the year, the 19-year old superstar in the making is averaging an impressive 19.6 points, eight rebounds and 2.1 assists in 27.1 minutes.
As to keys for capturing this evening's contest, Chicago needs to stampede out of the gates fast and deliver a hardnosed, blue-collar effort up-and-down the floor. To achieve offensive success the Bulls must play unselfishly, freely sharing the ball, bouncing it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, searching for every opportunity to attack the front of the rim and force the defense onto its heels.
At both ends of the floor all five players must stay involved in the action. The Bulls cannot allow the pace of the game to slow down with the ball getting stuck in any one player's hands, while the rest stand and watch. Simply put, the offense cannot morph into a string of isolation, one-on-one battles. The ball must skip around the perimeter, and if an opportunity presents itself, an attacker must drive into the paint and go directly to the rim, drawing contact and finish with some authority.
Defensively, Chicago must produce a hardscrabble effort with everyone sticking by their assigned man, making it difficult for him to create space or maneuver about. Collectively, the Bulls must also go hard after every rebound and loose ball, outhustling and outexecuting New Orleans.
Although the Pelicans have dropped their last two games, they have been playing well of late. Thus, to be the last team standing, Chicago needs to do a good job of communicating and recognizing the optimum time to aggressively attack the basket as well as defensively jump passing lanes and double-team the ball.