For the second time this season, the Bulls are set to square off with the Cavaliers, this time in Chicago. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Cavaliers’ last five games (2-3)
Jan. 17 — L at Grizzlies: 113-109
Jan. 14 — L at Clippers: 128-103
Jan. 13 — L at Lakers: 128-99
Jan. 11 — W at Nuggets: 111-103
Jan. 9 — W at Pistons: 115-112 (OT)
Storyline(s) to watch
This is as peak a ‘dog days of January’ NBA game as they come. For the Cavaliers (12-30), it’s the last of an absolutely grueling six-game road trip dating back to Jan. 9. For the Bulls (15-28), it’s the sixth game in nine nights. Both teams are on the back-end of back-to-backs and, of course, both were snowed out of Chicago until this morning after out-of-state games yesterday.
So, yeah. Legs will be tired. The Cavaliers are bottom-six in the league in offensive rating (25th), defensive rating (29th) and net rating (30th). The Bulls are 2-8 in their last ten and remain without a host of crucial characters in Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford. It’s a great opportunity for the Bulls to pick up a much-needed victory, but in general, this has the feel of a ‘Murphy’s Law’ type of evening for all parties involved. It's honestly kind of exciting.
Player(s) to watch: The Youngins
The Cavaliers started the season with what was expected to be one of the clankiest backcourts in the NBA — forgivable because the duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are in their sophomore and rookie seasons, respectively.
In reality, it’s been a mixed bag. Sexton, specifically, has shown major scoring promise and grabbed the reins of the offense with gumption — by a decent margin, he leads the Cavs in shots per game (16.2) and usage rate (26.2%). His field goal percentage is up from year one and he’s shown the ability to get to the rim consistently, but his 3-point efficiency has plummeted after a sharper-shooting second half to last season and his assist-to-usage ratio is in the second percentile of point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. As a team, the Cavaliers have the highest turnover rate in the league. Still, the sparks (and certainly the assertiveness) are there.
Bulls fans have their own lovable, inefficient youngin to spur on. Coby White is coming off a solid outing in Philadelphia, and the team will need his energy in this one. Something in my gut tells me this could be a big Coby game.
Matchup to watch: Frontcourts
There’s layers to this one. In an immediate sense, the matchup between the Cavaliers’ starting frontcourt of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson against Lauri Markkanen, Luke Kornet, Thad Young and Cristiano Felicio will be key to the game. When these teams met on Oct. 30 (the Cavs won 117-111), Love (20) and Thompson (10) combined to snag 30 boards and the Cavaliers, as a team, outrebounded the Bulls 57-41. Energy on the glass has been a fulcrum point in more than a handful of Bulls’ losses this season.
And in an existential sense, the Bulls need more from Markkanen. Love and Thompson are hounds on the glass, but neither are defensive stoppers. It’s going to take more than one bounceback performance to assuage growing concern about Markkanen’s regression, but filling the stat sheet against a bottom-of-the-barrel defense running on dead legs would be a good start. As always, watch closely the frontcourt minutes distribution. Against the Sixers, Markkanen played only one minute more than Kornet (and took one fewer shot) and three less than Young.
Side note: This isn’t the worst game to be on the lookout for another ‘ticked off Kevin Love’ moment of three. For all the reasons enumerated in the first section, anything and everything is possible tonight.
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