The Bulls return home to tip-off four home games in six days with a rematch against the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors. Chicago comes in having dropped two in a row, while the Raptors are also looking to get back on track after falling short in three straight. Both lost on the road yesterday, with Chicago losing 110-105 to Miami in overtime and Toronto falling 110-104 in Philadelphia.
Not a much has gone as planned for Chicago this season, as the Bulls have lost 16 of its first 24 games, placing them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. In their last pair, the Bulls have failed to take advantage of early leads by stumbling badly down the stretch, losing by five points or less each time. That scenario has played itself out on several occasion this year.
Guard Zach LaVine leads the Bulls attack, averaging a team-best 22.5 points per game to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Forward Lauri Markkanen's year has gotten off to a bumpy start, but the third-year 7-footer seems to be turning the corner, as yesterday he led Chicago in scoring with a 22-point effort, along with seven rebounds, two assists and a steal in 38 minutes. He now has scored 20 or more in three of his last four games and is averaging 18 points in 33 minutes over his last five.
Second year center Wendell Carter Jr. is making his presence known all around the league by averaging a double-double with career-highs of 12.3 points and 10.0 rebounds, while shooting 56.6% from the field. Rookie guard Coby White has displayed both flashes of greatness and inconsistency every now and then. Still, Chicago's 19-year old first-round pick is among his Draft class's leaders in a handful of categories, including scoring with an average of 12.4 points, all coming off the bench.
The Raptors have just completed a tough four-game stretch against the Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets (all as home), before going on the road and losing to the 76ers yesterday. Although they've stumbled a bit by losing three in a row, at 15-7 they're still right in the mix for a top four playoff berth in the East.
Forward Pascal Siakam leads the team in scoring at 24.6 points per game, to go along with 8.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Yesterday in Philadelphia, Siakam was held to 16 points (7-18 FG, 0-4 3Pt, 2-3 FT), as the Sixers did a great job of keeping him out of the paint most of the game. A primary key for the Bulls will be to do the same tonight, as Siakam is often a demon under the basket.
Other key players the Bulls will need to focus a lot of attention on today include veteran guard Kyle Lowry, who playing in his second game after missing 11 in a row due to a broken left thumb, scored 26 against Philadelphia, as well as former Indiana Hoosier OG Anunoby, who posted 19 points and 10 rebounds yesterday.
One player the Bulls might not have to contend with is guard Fred VanVleet who suffered a bruised right knee early in yesterday's game and didn't return. The 6'1 playmaker from nearby Rockford, Il., is enjoying a breakout season, averaging 18.0 points, 7.0 assists and shooting 39.5% from 3-point range over 37 minutes a game. As of this writing, VanVleet is listed as questionable for tonight's contest.
For Chicago to give themselves a shot of coming out on top they're going to play a hardnosed, blue collar game by being aggressive at both ends of the floor. The Bulls are most effective when they storm out of the gates right from the opening tip and quickly establish a fast and unselfish pace. They must reliably share the ball, passing it from player-to-player and from one side of the court to the other side, while also searching opportunities to attack the basket at every opportunity. All five players on the floor need to be involved in the offense. Chicago can't allow their attack to morph into a series of one-on-one matches.
In order to succeed the Bulls must outhustle and outwork every opponent by aggressively going hard after every rebound and loose ball, as well as set a fiery tone defensively by consistently jumping passing lanes and double-teaming the ball, especially when the ball gets passed into a corner.
The last time these two teams met was back on October 26th right here at the United Center where Toronto spoiled the Bulls home opener, 108-84. The Raptors broke open a tight contest midway through the second quarter to lead 48-40 at halftime. They continued to put distance between themselves and Bulls the rest of the night, as Siakam led the way with 19 points, while Anunoby chipped in 17, including going 3-of-6 from downtown.