When the Bulls welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the United Center Saturday night, it will be only the team’s second game in a weeklong holiday spell. Gaps like that are a rarity over the course of an arduous NBA season.
But it won’t last. After facing the Hawks, then the Bucks on Dec. 30, the Bulls embark on a month of January that will feature 17 games in just 31 days, eight at home and nine on the road.
“We know what we have now in January, it's going to be probably the toughest month,” Tomas Satoransky said after Friday afternoon practice. “A lot of traveling, a lot of back-to-backs.”
All things considered, such a gauntlet comes on the heels of a December worth building on: As of this writing, the Bulls own a 6-6 record and the second-highest rated defense in the NBA this month. Much has been made of the team’s improving chemistry at recent practices, as well. The offense is still lagging and head-scratching stretches persist, but playing .500 basketball is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for this team.
Taking the next one will be an uphill battle. It’s not enough that the Bulls’ game frequency and travel schedule are about to ramp up, the level of their competition is, too. In January, the team will face nine opponents with records currently over .500. They’ve faced 12 such opponents all season so far, and are 1-11 in said games.
“We know it’s a big January coming up. We play a lot of good teams. And the games come so quick. We know we have to be locked in,” Kris Dunn said. “We’ve played close games. My whole thing that I like to say to the team is: Keep the game close until the fourth quarter. And then anything can happen. It could go our way or the other team’s way. But if we keep the game close, no matter what team it is, we have a chance.”
Dunn has a point there: At this level of competition, anything can happen in the closing minutes of games decided by one or two possessions, and the Bulls have been in their fair share of tight ones — 22 to be exact, tied for most in the league per NBA.com’s definition (a game within a five-point differential with five minutes or less to play).
The rub, of course, is that they’re 8-14 in said contests. Their most recent one was a 103-95 loss to the Magic on Monday, which Zach LaVine said left him “as upset as I’ve been over a game.” LaVine and Boylen credited the sting of that defeat to the fact that a win would have moved them into a tie for the eighth seed of the Eastern Conference — by all accounts, the playoffs remain a goal. That makes continuing to improve over the coming month, regardless of circumstance, all the more essential.
But qualities intrinsic to this team — their aggressive, up-tempo tendencies; their propensity for playing in high-leverage games — have the potential to make grueling stretches of the schedule downright sapping.
"We play really physical basketball where we run a lot, we put a lot of pressure, so obviously we are a little fresher at the beginning [of games]," Satoransky said Thursday of the team's in-game playstyle. "That's a challenge for this team, and I know we still struggle in those situations, but I think we are getting better at them and I think it's going to be good lessons for us for the future of the season."
That future is now, and the organization, top to bottom, is aware of it.
“I'm really trying to figure out how to keep us as fresh as possible. I've been studying it.” Jim Boylen said. “I meet with Chip [Schaefer, Director of Sports Performance] on our numbers, our camera numbers. There's a lot that goes into it, our recovery numbers, I get a printout every day of our recovery. I'll get a printout from this practice of how much energy each guy's used, his mechanical load. I'll study it, and we'll study it, and we'll figure it out.
“There's a lot that goes into it and it's important to me to manage this team appropriately. We want to run and we have a very active defense, so those things can drain you… It's all part of this process, but 17 games in a month is tough.”
Boylen added that the team will likely get creative managing everything from practices and shootaround schedules, to in-game timeout usage to try to keep them fresh. But, Boylen also stressed, no single opponent — or string of them — is going to get the team too high or too low.
“I think number of games,” Boylen said of which aspect of their January slate looms largest. “I don't go into a game saying, well this team's better than us, or this team's not. We want to play our basketball, play good basketball, prepare for the things we can control and keep growing.”
Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.