Timing is everything over the course of the marathon 82 game regular season, and it looks like the Bulls are catching the New Orleans Pelicans at the worst possible time.
After getting off to an impressive 4-0 start, the Pels have dropped 6 in a row with a pair of starters (Anthony Davis and Elfrid Payton) missing time because of injuries. So, forget about the home team having a letdown against the shorthanded Bulls Wednesday night. Alvin Gentry's team is desperate for a win and we should expect them to play accordingly.
Davis is back after missing 3 games because of an elbow injury, but he's still not playing like a guy who's 100% recovered. Davis scored 20 points and pulled down 8 rebounds in the Pelicans' 122-116 loss at Oklahoma City on Monday, both below his season averages of 23.3 and 11.6.
Speculation continues about Davis' future in New Orleans, and he talked openly last week about hoping DeMarcus Cousins will consider returning to the Pelicans when he becomes a free agent next summer. Davis is committed to the franchise through the 2019-2020 season and the front office will do everything possible to make sure their star player is happy.
Still, even with the Pelicans' 1st round upset of Portland in last season's playoffs, Davis could grow tired of running up against superior teams in the loaded Western Conference and start looking at options elsewhere. If the Pelicans come to the realization they won't be able to re-sign him, they'll be flooded with attractive trade offers from teams with young talent and draft picks like the Celtics, 76'ers, Clippers and yes, Davis' hometown Bulls.
So, there's a ton of pressure on Gentry and the Pels' front office to get back to the playoffs this season. Getting Julius Randle on a bargain free agent contract gave New Orleans another productive frontcourt player, while former Bulls Niko Mirotic is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 21.8 points and 11.4 rebounds, while shooting 50% from the field.
The Pelicans brought in Payton after his failed stints with Orlando and Phoenix to run the point, moving underrated Jrue Holiday to the shooting guard spot. Holiday emerged during last year's playoffs as a big-time scorer, averaging 23.9 points over 9 games. He's continued that production this season, averaging 18.9 points on 47% shooting.
Another former Bull, E'Twaun Moore, has started all 10 games this season, averaging 13.8 points on a very impressive 54% clip from the field. The Pelicans' bench is a little thin outside of Randle, who has continued the improvement we saw last year with the Lakers. Randle is averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 56%. The rest of the reserve group is made up of NBA journeymen like Ian Clark, Darius Miller, Cheick Diallo, Solomon Hill, Tim Frazier and Chicago native Jahlil Okafor.
New Orleans is 5th in the NBA in scoring, averaging 118.6 points, but they're giving up 120.7, which is tied with Washington for worst in the league.
With that in mind, here's what the Bulls must do to have a chance to come away with another road victory.
1. VALUE EVERY POSSESSION. Careless turnovers almost cost the Bulls the game on Monday in New York, so they can't afford empty possessions against a team with as much offensive firepower as the Pelicans. Zach LaVine has shot 27 free throws over the last 2 games, and when LaVine makes up his mind to get to the basket, there aren't many defenders in the league who can stay in front of him. Anthony Davis is an excellent shot blocker, but outside of Davis, the Pelicans aren't very strong in rim protection.
2. DON'T BITE ON THE PUMP FAKE. No team should be more prepared for Mirotic's endless pump-fake exhibition than Fred Hoiberg's Bulls. Niko has become a much more efficient offensive player over the last 2 seasons, but he's still prone to turning the ball over if defenders force him to take more than a few dribbles. You know Mirotic wants to have a big game against his former team, and hopefully the Bulls can take advantage of some over anxiousness on Niko’s part.
3. KEEP CARTER OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE. The Bulls' top draft pick got off to great starts in the last 2 games against the Knicks and Rockets, only to be forced to the bench by early foul trouble. Davis is one of the toughest big man covers in the league, so Carter must contest his perimeter shots without fouling and use his 7'4" wingspan to keep Davis from attacking the offensive boards. On the other end, Carter must look for his shots to force Davis to play him straight up, and not be able to help out when other Bulls' players drive to the basket.
You can watch the Bulls-Pelicans game on NBC Sports Chicago, and it will also be streaming live on nbcsportschicago.com and the new MyTeams by NBC Sports app. 4-time NBA champion Horace Grant joins Kendall Gill and me in studio for Bulls Pregame Live at 6:30, with tip-off at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans just after 7 p.m.
After the game, stay tuned to NBC Sports Chicago for Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders. We'll see you Wednesday night