Zion Williamson won't return, but the Bulls' matchup with the Pelicans tonight still holds significance. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Pelicans’ last five games (3-2)
Jan. 6 — L vs. Jazz: 128-126
Jan. 4 — W at Kings: 117-115
Jan. 3 — L at Lakers: 123-113
Dec. 29 — W vs. Rockets: 127-112
Dec. 28 — W vs. Pacers: 120-98
Storyline(s) to watch
The Pelicans enter play 12-25 and ahead of only the Warriors in the Western Conference standings. But don’t be fooled. This is a team on the rise, winners of six of their last nine games and owners of a top-10 offense and defense in the NBA over the span. Even without Jrue Holiday, they’re no pushovers, especially at home, where they’ve notched recent victories over the Pacers and Rockets.
If the Bulls want any hope of keeping pace in the race for the East's eighth seed, this is a must-win. It's not as simple as saying the Pelicans are an inferior, shorthanded opponent — as mentioned, they're playing well and the Bulls will be without Wendell Carter Jr. But there are too many quality opponents on the horizon to drop the winnable ones, especially when a loss tonight would push the Bulls' current losing streak to five.
Player to watch: Brandon Ingram
Are we talking about Brandon Ingram enough? Seriously, he’s blossomed into a pretty unbelievable offensive player this season, one who’s elastic frame and consistent shot creation is sure to give an undersized Bulls wing rotation fits all night. Everything he does, he does efficiently. On the season, he’s averaging 25.2 points (10th in the NBA) and 6.8 rebounds per game on 48/40.4/86.7 shooting splits (18.6 shot attempts per game).
And he’s doing it night in, night out. Ingram has eight games with 30 or more points this season, and only four below 20. Those early-career Kevin Durant comps aren’t all the way there yet, but we’re getting closer and closer by the year:
Kris Dunn likely gets this assignment, as he does with opposing teams’ deadliest threats every night. The Bulls can count themselves fortunate Ingram isn’t an elite foul-drawer yet (5.7 free throw attempts per game). Dunn got in early foul trouble against Luka Doncic last game and the defense paid dearly — Doncic lit up (mostly) Shaq Harrison for 21 points in a third quarter that swung the game.
Matchup to watch: 3-point line
When things are going well, the Pelicans make their living from behind the arc. As a team, they attempt the fifth-most long-balls per game (38.7) and convert the seventh-best percentage of them (36.7%) in the NBA. In wins, they shoot 42% from 3, in losses, 34.2%. And over that aforementioned nine-game stretch in which they’ve gone 6-3, they’re shooting 38.2% from deep.
Around the rim and from midrange, they’re middle-of-the-pack both in terms of volume and efficiency. Their principal offensive threats are perimeter players. Beware of J.J. Redick off screens — he’s hitting an ungodly 46.2% of his 3s on 6.7 attempts per game — and stay alert to E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart and ‘improved-shooting-form’ Lonzo Ball (36.6 3P%, 6.3 attempts).
The Bulls’ 3-point percentages, on individual and team-wide bases, have been steadily improving all season, but over their current four-game losing streak, they’re hitting just 34.5% from deep. A hot-shooting night (looking at Zach LaVine with no Jrue Holiday in the Pels’ lineup) could be just what the visitors need to get back on track. This matchup could decide the game.
News and nuggets:
Wendell Carter Jr. is officially out with the sprained ankle he suffered in Dallas. He’s arguably been the steadiest presence on the team this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how Boylen tinkers with his big rotation. (Big Daniel Gafford minutes? Hutchison at the 4? Luke Kornet back?)
Losing Carter before a matchup with Derrick Favors is a big blow. Per Cleaning the Glass, Favors is in the 96th percentile of the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage 95th percentile in offensive rebounding percentage. He could eat.
Thad Young appears on pace to start in Carter's place. It's a logical move that puts defense and rebounding next to Lauri Markkanen in the frontcourt. Also per Cleaning the Glass, lineups featuring Markkanen and Young boast a 19% defensive rebounding rate, 99th percentile in the NBA (though those lineups' collective offensive rating of 100.5 ranks only in the sixth percentile).
It’s been lost in the Bulls’ recent malaise, but Lauri Markkanen is on a roll. Dating back to the start of December, he’s averaging 18 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 49.8/40/86.1 shooting splits. Keep feeding him (shots and minutes).
- Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson are both officially out. The Pelicans thus represent another shorthanded opponent for the Bulls. But the Bulls are without key pieces too. All in all, this should be a competitive game that goes down to the wire.
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