Two struggling squads look to right their respective ships when the Pacers visit the Bulls tonight. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Pacers’ last five games (2-3)
Jan. 8 — L vs. Heat: 122-108
Jan. 6 — W at Hornets: 115-104
Jan. 4 — L at Hawks: 116-111
Jan. 2 — L vs. Nuggets: 124-116
Dec. 31 — W vs. 76ers: 115-97
Storyline(s) to watch
Neither of these teams are playing particularly well, coming into this one. The Pacers enter play losers of six of their last nine and have a 116 defensive rating over that stretch (28th in the NBA). Their last game was a blowout loss to Miami that saw multiple heated exchanges between T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls, of course, are in the midst of a season-high five game losing streak, are a season-low (high?) 12 games under .500 and just lost Wendell Carter Jr. for at least a month. These teams linked up in Indiana on Nov. 3, when the Pacers essentially trounced the Bulls 108-95 without Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Oladipo is still out, and Sabonis and starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon are both listed as questionable for tonight. Still, the Pacers are a solid overall team in need of a win, which could spell misfortune for the Bulls.
Watch closely how the Bulls defense — which is rated 28th in the NBA over the team’s current five-game skid — continues to adjust and hold up without their anchor in Carter. That side of the ball has kept the Bulls in most of their games this season, but this upcoming stretch of schedule is precarious.
Player to watch: Domantas Sabonis
Here’s a comprehensive list of players that have averaged at least 18 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists on at least 52% shooting over a full NBA season:
Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64, ’65-69, ’69-71)
Jerry Lucas (1968-69)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971-76)
Bill Walton (1977-78)
Charles Barkley (1986-87)
Domantas Sabonis’ averages so far in 2019-20: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 52.8% shooting. Is that a cherry-pick? Of course it is! But it’s great company for the fourth-year big, nonetheless, and should give some semblance of how impressive a campaign he’s having (and a well-timed one at that, given that he signed a four-year, $74.9 million extension last offseason):
Sabonis runs the floor hard, crashes the glass, takes and makes an overwhelming amount of midrange jumpers, and capably facilitates from the elbows. He’s a tricky matchup for Lauri Markkanen, especially given his ability to move defenders on the block. The Bulls were fortunate to avoid Sabonis in their last meeting in Indiana, but expect him to wreak havoc tonight if he plays.
Matchup to watch: A clash of styles
There’s an intriguing polarity to this matchup. The Pacers play at the fourth-slowest PACE in the league (99.08 possessions per game), the Bulls the 13th-fastest (101.05). Indiana also takes the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game (while shooting a fifth-best 36.8% on those looks) in the league while the Bulls take the eighth-most (converting an 18th-ranked 35.4%). The Bulls are midrange-averse; the Pacers take 18.3 midrange attempts per game (second in the NBA).
All of that is to say, something has to give. The Bulls are at their best running off of turnovers, but the Pacers cough up the least of those in the league, with only 12.9 per game. And though Indiana doesn’t rank highly in most team rebounding metrics, Sabonis and Myles Turner will pose a whale of a challenge for a shorthanded Bulls frontcourt on the interior and boards.
Whichever team is able to play their game — and each teams’ ‘game’ is staunchly different — is likely to find an edge.
News and nuggets
After rolling with a starting frontcourt of Thad Young and Lauri Markkanen against the Pelicans, Daniel Gafford will start alongside Markkanen tonight. The high-flying, deftly mobile Gafford has been the most pleasant surprise on the Bulls this season, but he remains a rookie, and the Bulls' defensive style is both physically and mentally taxing to play. How many minutes Boylen is willing to run him and how he fares against one of the more physically imposing centers in the league in Myles Turner are points to monitor closely.
Malcolm Brogdon (back soreness) and Domantas Sabonis (knee soreness) are both currently listed as questionable for tonight. Brogdon was part of the shorthanded Pacers team that beat the Bulls in November, tallying 22 points and 7 assists.
Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.