Tonight the Chicago Bulls (19-47) and the Detroit Pistons (32-31) tip-off a weekend home-and-home set at the United Center. Tonight will be the third time this year the two division rivals will have squared off. The season series ends Sunday afternoon in the heart of Motown at Little Caesars Arena.
Detroit won each of the earlier meetings, the first of which occurred at the UC on October 20th, 118-116, behind Blake Griffin's 33-point, 12-rebound effort. But despite Griffin's brilliance, it was backup guard Ish Smith who proved to be a catalyst down the stretch as he sparked the Pistons to the victory. Smith posted 15 points on the night, all coming in the second half, including the decisive final bucket with just 5.4 seconds on the clock to snap a 116-116 draw.
Zach LaVine led the Bulls by matching Griffin's 33 points. Chicago however was forced to play without starters Kris Dunn (birth of his son) and Lauri Markkanen (injured elbow), as well as key reserve Denzel Valentine (left ankle), who back then hadn't yet undergone season-ending surgery.
The second time the Bulls and Pistons got together this season was in Detroit on November 30th, where the home squad never trailed, routing Chicago, 107-88.
Once again Griffin played a major role, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson got off to a hot start, scoring 17 of his 20-point contribution in the opening half. The Pistons also got a star performance out of center Andre Drummond, who posted a double-double of 19 points and 19 rebounds. Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. was the lone bright spot for the visiting Chicagoans, breaking out for 28 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
The Bulls hit the hardwood this evening riding a wave of momentum after beating Philadelphia on Wednesday right here at the UC, 108-107. It ended up being another monster game for Zach LaVine. The 6'5”, fifth-year guard went off for 39 points, including scoring the winning layup with less than a second to play. It was his 10th 30-point night this year. If he can score 20 or more again this evening, it would be his 44th 20+ effort this season.
On the year LaVine not only leads Chicago in scoring (23.8), but he's also notching a number of career-bests (4.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, .467 FG% and .843 FT%) as well.
Although the Bulls have only won 19 games this season, seven have come since Otto Porter Jr. arrived in town the night before last month's trade deadline. The former 2013 3rd overall pick out of Georgetown has fit perfectly next to LaVine and starting power forward Lauri Markkanen.
In 10 games as a Chicago Bull, Porter Jr. is averaging 18 points, six rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting .479% from the field and .491% from distance in playing just a hair under 35 minutes.
As for Markkanen, the second-year Finn has truly come into his own this season. Not only has he scored in double-figures in 24 straight games, but since January 27th through the Philly game the other night, he's pulled down nine or more rebounds 16 consecutive times.
Just like LaVine, Markkanen is also posting career-highs all over the board, averaging 19.3 points, 9.3 rebounds in 33.1 minutes.
Detroit comes in having won three straight and 10 of their last 12 to move beyond the .500 mark (32-31) for the first time since mid-December. In their last game Griffin had a rare off-night, scoring single-digits (nine points) for the first time since early November. But that didn't slow the Pistons down as they still destroyed Minnesota, 131-114. Drummond powered his way to a game-high 31 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks while the Motown bench really kicked it into high gear, contributing 70 points of their own behind second-year sharpshooter Luke Kennard's 21. Ish Smith (there's that man again!) also joined the fun off the bench, chipping in 19 and dishing five assists.
For Chicago pull-off another upset this evening they're going to have to do a great job of keeping the ball hopping from side-to-side and make sure everyone gets involved in the action.
The ball will have to freely skip from player-to-player in order to force Detroit, and Drummond, in particular down in the paint, to burn energy in covering a lot of ground.
Collectively, the Bulls will also have to sport uncompromising attitude at both ends of the floor, demonstrating a willingness to be just as physical and equally persistent in attacking the basket as Detroit will most certainly be.
To be successful Chicago needs to consistently tap into its wealth of speed and athleticism by fighting tooth-and-nail on the boards so that they can speed the pace of the game. The Bulls need to snatch every missed shot they can get a hand on and look to streak down the floor for easy scores before Detroit has time to set up. Likewise, Chicago also has to stay focused and poised whenever they don't corral a missed shot by always hustling back defensively in order to thwart Jackson and Smith's craving to lead the Pistons on a fastbreak, as well as their plan to attack the hoop at Chicago's end of the floor.