The Bulls and the Memphis Grizzlies tip-off for the first time this season at FedEx Forum. The teams will meet again on Friday in Chicago to complete the annual two-game series. Tip-off this evening is set for 8:00 p.m. CT.
Fans can catch the game on NBC Sports Chicago or on radio at WBBM-AM 780.
Both the Bulls and Grizzlies are coming off tough, disappointing losses last night. Chicago fell, 121-117, in Minnesota, while Memphis lost at home to Indiana, 132-125.
Karl-Anthony Towns recorded a double-double of 27 points and 12 rebounds, while D'Angelo Russell stormed off the Minnesota bench and also scored 27 to lead the way for the T-Wolves.
Veteran point guard, Ricky Rubio, also had a big game, connecting on five of six 3-point attempts, chipping in 17 points, while top overall pick, Anthony Edwards, added 15 points as well in helping Minnesota to hold off a late Bulls charge.
Two days after torching the twine for his first 50-point night, All-Star Zach LaVine scored 21 of his game-high 30 points in the second half to lead Chicago's failed comeback bid. Recent addition Nikola Vučević did his part in contributing 18 points, while fellow newbie Daniel Theis provided 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals off the bench, but the Bulls still lost for the sixth time in nine games.
If Chicago is really serious about making the playoffs, then they can't sleepwalk their way through three quarters of a game and suddenly decide to flip the switch down the stretch. Losing to a 13-win team like the Minnesota Timberwolves doesn't earn you respect.
Tonight, the Bulls face a much tougher opponent in the Memphis Grizzlies, who sport a record of 26-25. If Chicago has designs on winning, they better show up focused and locked in at both ends of the floor right from the opening tip.
Overall, Chicago has done a very good job of guarding the three-point line this season. They currently rank No. 3 in allowing just 11.3 treys a game, and 6th in opponent shooting from the bend at 35.1%. But besides effectively defending the three-point arc, the Bulls have to really tighten things up down low, as way too many foes have found open paths through the paint for easy scores. Nothing helps build momentum more than enjoying a parade of layups. As a collective unit, Chicago has to be willing to get physical and deliver a message that if you attack the rim, a price will be paid. It's long past due to put an end to defensive confusion, missed assignments and constantly failing to rotate and help a teammate if his man beats him off the dribble.
Chicago, as a collective unit, also needs to seize control of the backboards at both ends of the floor tonight, forcing Memphis to live outside, far from the basket.
This will not be easy, as Grizzlies center Jonas Valančiūnas seems to always have a big night whenever he sees the Bulls. The 6'11, 265-pound pivotman is averaging 16.8 points and 12.7 rebounds and ranks 3rd in the league with 38 double-doubles. Last night against the Pacers, he bullied his way to a 34-point, 22-rebound game.
The last time Valančiūnas didn't collect double-digit rebounds was back on February 28th when he played less than 13 minutes as the Grizzlies destroyed Houston that night by 49 points.
Besides the man nicknamed "Big Science," another key Memphis player Chicago must set its sights to put on ice this evening is point guard, Ja Morant, who reminds many of a prime-time Derrick Rose.
The second-year playmaker comes in averaging 19 points and 7.4 assists. Morant also had a productive night against Indiana, recording 23 points, six assists and two steals. Morant is a relentless rim runner. He looks to attack the paint almost every trip down the floor. Chicago will need to really buckle down in defending the paint tonight.
With regards to offense, for the Bulls to control the game, they must constantly skip the ball from player-to-player. Quick, persistent passing compels defenses to overreact, scramble and frequently commit unnecessary fouls. Free-flowing passing also makes it easier to attack the basket and finish at the rim with dunks and other high percentage shots.
After adding Nikola Vučević at the trade deadline, Chicago has somewhat adjusted its offensive system by looking to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often compared to previously relying heavily on their guards' perimeter shooting skills. Vučević is one of the NBA's most effective and efficient scorers near the hoop. And besides having a good touch at the iron, Vučević is also capable of stepping outside and knocking down three-pointers from behind the arc. His skillset makes it impossible for opponents to leave their big men under the basket to protect the rim.
Once Vučević steps away from the basket and begins knocking down shots from deep, his defender will have to abandon the paint and join him outside. That will make it easier for LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and to an extent, Thaddeus Young, to cut to the hoop for layups, and with any luck, pick up trips to the free throw line.
This is another reason why the Bulls must play unselfishly. The ball needs to skip fast and free among all five players on the floor. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the action is absolutely vital to winning games.
All in all, the Bulls have done an outstanding job of sharing the ball this season, especially of late as they have dished 25+ assists in each of their last nine games, an accomplishment that hasn't happened since the 1990-91 season.
In short, for the Bulls to be successful they have to be aggressive and carry that mindset throughout the night. They have to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way possible. That involves fighting through screens, going all out for every rebound and diving onto the floor for every loose ball. If they accomplish most (if not all) of these objectives, they should end up as the last team standing when the final horn sounds.