Tonight the Detroit Pistons visit the United Center for the first time to take on the Bulls in the first of four scheduled gatherings this season. Detroit is currently tied with Milwaukee for 2nd place in the Central Division, and 7th overall in the East with a record of 22-18.
The Pistons find themselves at sort of a crossroads, as they got off to a tremendous start this season by winning 14 of their first 20 games, but a slew of injuries have taken a toll as they've gone 8-12 since. The most concerning hurts are to point guard Reggie Jackson and forward Jon Leuer, both of whom are currently sidelined due to serious ankle injuries. Leuer has been out since Halloween, and in fact may need season-ending surgery, while Jackson isn't expected to return until after the All-Star break in mid-February. Forward Stanley Johnson recently missed five games thanks to a hip flexor issue, while Andre Drummond (bruised ribs) and Avery Bradley (groin strain) have also been forced to the sidelines from time-to-time due to health issues. Johnson, Drummond and Bradley should play today, but still that's five of Detroit's top eight players, some of whom have missed significant time, forced to overcome pesky health hurdles, so in many respects it's remarkable the Pistons are four games above .500 and very much in the thick of the playoff race halfway through the season.
Speaking of injuries — or in this case, successfully overcoming one — tonight marks the Bulls debut of Zach LaVine — on Zach LaVine Bobblehead Night, no less!
The centerpiece player Chicago received from Minnesota over the summer in the Jimmy Butler trade has been chomping at the bit to get back on the hardwood after suffering a torn ACL last February, ironically in a game against the Pistons. The 6'5”, 22-year-old guard, who was averaging a career-best 18.9 points and shooting 38.7% from long distance at the time of his injury, will be limited to just 20 minutes of action this evening, but it's a pretty safe bet that every single second of those 20 minutes will have Bulls fans on their feet, as LaVine is without a doubt one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
As for keys to tonight's contest, the Bulls need to play a hardnosed, physical game at both ends of the floor. Detroit is a blue-collar crew who won't back down from a challenge. In fact, Drummond and Bradley are two of the league's grittiest two-way players, thus Chicago must exceed Detroit's energy and establish a fast, aggressive pace right from the opening tip.
Chicago's offense is designed for quick strikes with every player involved in the action. Thus for it to click the Bulls have to take advantage of their speed and athleticism by running at every opportunity and attacking early in possessions before the defense can get set. The ball also has to generously be shared, jumping from one side of the court to the other and from player-to-player to generate open looks at the basket.
Thus whenever Chicago snares a defensive rebound look for them to quickly push the ball up the floor and then spread out, stationing shooters evenly along the 3-point arc to draw Detroit's defense away from the basket. Chicago's primary ballhandlers, Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine, will need to attempt to drive the ball deep into the paint to create defensive confusion. If the Pistons adjust by collectively sliding down towards the basket and/or look to trap or double-team before they get to the rim, the Bulls' attackers have to make an adjustment of their own by finding a teammate on the perimeter and get him the ball for an open shot.
In short, the Bulls have to come out of the gates quickly and establish a fast and aggressive pace, keeping everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor. If they can accomplish these objectives, they'll give themselves a terrific shot of knocking-off a longtime rival.