To say I’m uneasy about this upcoming week would be an understatement. Winners of only two games in their last 10 matchups, the Chicago Bulls have begun a concerning plummet down the East standings. Sure, the schedule has become one of the toughest in the league, but the Bulls’ repeated failure to stay competitive against these top teams has left many questioning exactly what can be accomplished over the remainder of this season.
At least one silver lining is the fact the Bulls can answer some of those questions this week. Not only do they get another chance to prove themselves against one of the NBA’s best on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, but they also get to prove they belong on a tier above squads like the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Those are the two teams hoping to table-top (ya know, one shoves them in the chest while the other is on all-fours behind them, thus tripping them … we did it all the time in middle school) the Bulls into the Play-In Tournament.
Fortunately, Chicago can make that outcome a lot more unlikely if they take care of business.
Unfortunately, the Bulls have practically been out-of-office since the All-Star break.
• Good news: The Raptors will come into Chicago tonight on the backend of a back-to-back. Bad news: They just beat the Philadelphia 76ers to come within 1.5 games of the Bulls. When we compare them to Chicago, Toronto has pretty much had the opposite seasonal arc. A group that started off slow and on the brink of the Play-In Tournament has since risen up the league ranks and played some of their best basketball in recent weeks. They have won six of their last seven games, and that included huge victories over the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, and 76ers. How have they done it? In the way the Bulls haven’t: Playing defense. Toronto has held a top-10 defensive rating since mid-February, and opponents have only scored the 5th-fewest points per game against the Raptors over the last 12 games.
• While the Bulls were able to score 120 points when these two last met on February 3rd, we still saw aspects of this grueling defense give the Bulls trouble. The length of guys like Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam helped hold DeMar DeRozan to an uncharacteristic 7-17 performance from the field. They also forced Chicago into 17 turnovers, many of which came by poking the ball away on dribble drives or aggressively double-teaming the ballhandler. This led to a 22-10 advantage in the points-off-turnovers battle, and it’s hard not to think this was the difference between clinching the season series then and having to fight for it now.
Tiebreak watch ahead of Bulls-Raps: Bulls win would clinch season series 3-1, giving them tiebreak if teams finish reg season with same record
Raps win would level it 2-2. Assuming neither team wins its division, next applicable tiebreak is conf record. Bulls 26-17, Raps 24-19
— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) March 21, 2022
• The Bulls simply have to be more careful with the basketball if they want to keep the Raptors at arm’s length. Not only must they be more decisive with their playmaking, but they must be ready to get the ball out quickly when they see the double-team coming. We know the Bulls are capable of beating this Raptors team, so it will all come down to playing a more disciplined game.
• Nikola Vucevic also has to have his fingerprints all over this game. Establishing his presence early is key against a Toronto team that has a massive hole at the center position. While they may have the length to make up for the big-man deficiency at times, we saw how effective Vucevic can be as an interior playmaker against this squad in February when he dropped 30 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. He’s also had at least 4 assists in the last two meetings with Toronto, and he should have an opportunity to do this again if the Bulls show a willingness to hit him in his spots from the jump. The quicker he is in a groove, the quicker the Raptors could be forced to overcompensate on defense.
• When we factor in the seeding race, it’s clear why this game is a must-win. But it only becomes that much more important when we consider (1) Toronto is on the backend of a back-to-back and (2) OG Anunoby will be on the sideline. Anunoby has had three consecutive 20+ point games against Chicago, and he was a huge part of why DeRozan had an inefficient night from the field last month.
• I have beaten around the bush long enough: GUESS WHO’S BACK!!!????
Patrick Williams makes his return tonight against the Raptors.
“I’m super excited. More excited to just battle with the guys.” pic.twitter.com/FkIFOu7Lqz
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 21, 2022
• Patrick Williams is expected to come off the bench and play on a minutes restriction in his first contest since October. While he may not yet be unleashed, I have no doubt his mere presence will give this Bulls team a boost. His size and natural defensive talent will provide a presence they have desperately needed at the power forward position this season. Not to mention, in a new role off the bench, we could see him finally play a more concerted role on the offensive end.
• To be clear, expectations still MUST be tempered for the remainder of this season. We should never expect a 20-year-old to be the difference between winning and losing, but it’s also never a bad day when a player as naturally gifted as Williams gets back on the floor. I wrote some more on what we should expect from The Paw this weekend:
What Should We Expect in a Patrick Williams Return? (and Other Bulls Bullets)https://t.co/G1P9bTqfGo
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) March 20, 2022
• Have you seen The Athletic’s crazy story about Urban Meyer’s stint in Jacksonville? I can’t say any of the information came as a surprise, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how aggressively some coaches seem to fail when transitioning from college to the pros. The Chicago Bulls have seen it on full display with Tim Floyd and Fred Hoiberg, and I can easily name a number of other league-wide flops from Rick Pitino to John Calipari to John Beilein. Honestly, it’s pretty remarkable Billy Donovan has been able to transition in the way he has. I’m sure having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook made his life easier at first, but he was clearly one of the rare minds built to find success at both levels.
— Bleacher Nation Bears (@BN_Bears) March 21, 2022
• So the Bulls’ defense is going to be the best in the league now, right?
— Mike Singletary (@MSing50official) March 20, 2022
• ICYMI: Jerry Reinsdorf says HE – not the GOAT – axed the infamous trade that would have sent Scottie Pippen off for Tracey McGrady.
• The NHL trade deadline has arrived. Make sure you’re following over at BN Blackhawks for all the latest updates today:
— Bleacher Nation Blackhawks (@BN_Blackhawks) March 21, 2022