What to watch for: Bulls return home for second matchup of the season with Memphis Grizzlies

USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls return home for second matchup of the season with Memphis Grizzlies

After a three-game west coast swing, the Bulls are back home for a matchup with the 6-14 Memphis Grizzlies. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here’s what to watch for:

Grizzlies’ last five games (1-4)

  • Dec. 2 — L vs. Pacers: 117-104

  • Dec. 1 — W at Timberwolves: 115-107

  • Nov. 29 — L vs. Jazz: 103-94

  • Nov. 27 — L vs. Clippers: 121-119

  • Nov. 25 — L at Pacers: 126-114

One storyline for each team

These Grizzlies — who the Bulls have seen already this season in a 110-102 win in Memphis on Oct. 25 — are a young, feisty rebuilding group. But tonight, they’ll be without both of their promising 2019 first-round picks: franchise centerpiece and presumptive ROY favorite, Ja Morant (back spasms) and Brandon Clarke (hip). Still, Jaren Jackson Jr., athletic, sharp-shooting and uber-versatile defensively, is a glimpse into the future of the center position and a must-watch whenever he comes to town. Dillon Brooks is a savvy scorer quietly enjoying a career year.

But, back home (where they're 3-7 on the season) after a week on the West Coast, this remains a game the Bulls should win. The Zach LaVine/Lauri Markkanen combination will be at the center of everybody’s attention. The two had simultaneously productive outings in Monday night’s win in Sacramento, each scoring 20 points in the same game for the first time this season. LaVine had 37 points in their last matchup with Memphis, Markkanen shot 4-for-15, scoring nine.

“I think me and him started doing some more two-man game stuff, even if we had to break a little bit of offense up,” LaVine said after the Kings game. “Two-man game with me and him is deadly because if they’re helping off me, they’re going to leave a great shooter open. I’m excited.”

Before that game, LaVine had assisted 13 Markkanen field goals this season, none on pick-and-pop possessions. That two-man game developing could be transformational for the Bulls’ offense. Look out for it tonight.

Player to watch: Jaren Jackson Jr.

Depending on the availability of Jonas Valanciunas, Jackson could start at the five tonight, matching him up with draft classmate Wendell Carter Jr. Jackson is coming off his highest-scoring performance of the season, a 31-point effort against the Pacers on Monday:

His ball-handling ability and shooting prowess present a whale of a defensive challenge for Carter. But, like Carter, he often struggles with foul trouble — Jackson is tied for the league lead in personal fouls per game (4.1), Carter tied for second with four — and isn’t the strongest rebounder for his size. He’s currently averaging only 4.8 rebounds per game, and Cleaning the Glass ranks him in the 17th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage for his position.

Back in October, he did log a double-double (23 points, 11 rebounds) against the Bulls. The battle between he and Carter is sure to be entertaining all night.

Battle to watch: Lauri Markkanen vs. frontcourt

Bulls fans, though, should perhaps keep a closer eye on Markkanen’s matchup against Memphis’ frontcourt. The last time these two teams met, Markkanen appeared to struggle with the defensive length and athleticism the Grizz threw at him, mustering one of his worst shooting performances of the season. Tonight, though, Memphis will be without Brandon Clarke (25 minutes on Oct. 25) and possibly Valanciunas (18 minutes on Oct. 25).

Without the two of them, head coach Taylor Jenkins has rolled with a smallish, stretchy lineup of late, that features Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder at the forward spots. Crowder is a bulldog that backs down from no one, and Jackson behind him is one of the more dynamic shotblockers in the league, but if Markkanen’s bounceback night in Sacramento is going to catalyze a turnaround, this is a matchup he has to win.

Side note: Coby White showed out against the Grizzlies earlier in the season, scoring 25 points (11 in the fourth quarter). Big Coby nights are appointment television, and he could find opportunity to get going again in this one. 

Injury/miscellaneous updates

As mentioned, Morant and Clarke both won’t play for Memphis, tonight. Kyle Anderson (heel) is officially questionable, and head coach Taylor Jenkins called Valanciunas (illness), who has missed the last two games, a gametime decision.

Per Jim Boylen, both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison will undergo follow-up MRIs today and will remain inactive until further notice. Barring an unforeseen development, there’s no reason to believe Boylen will turn away from Kris Dunn in the starting lineup until one or both of those two return.

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Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls season

USA Today

Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls season


It’s no secret that the Bulls’ season hangs in the balance. At 17-30, the team is at once three games out of a playoff spot and slated ninth in the current lottery standings. 

To hear head coach Jim Boylen and co. tell it, a playoff berth remains the more desirable of those two timelines. But according to Basketball Reference, the Bulls have the third most difficult remaining strength of schedule in the East. And worse, they’ll have to face the (immediate) future without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

The loss of Markkanen — the most recent of that group to go down — has tipping point potential. In the Bulls’ first game without him, they mustered just 81 points at home against a swooning Sacramento Kings squad, shooting 8-for-37 from 3-point range in the process. The team’s need for secondary scoring outside of Zach LaVine glared

But, as Boylen has maintained all season, the Bulls are not going to change the way they play. They just need to play better.

“We gotta play faster, we gotta move the ball. I thought we had a couple possessions where the ball stuck. The ball can’t stick. We gotta move it, we gotta drive it,” Boylen said of the loss to the Kings before the Bulls’ Saturday night matchup with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “I also think we missed some opportunities that we need to make.

“Our margin for error is not great. We have to make the plays we can make and make the shots we can make.”

For now, at least, the starting lineup won’t change (sorry #StartCoby crowd) -- though Boylen said he’ll keep his rotation fluid. As for outside reinforcements being brought in?

“We have not talked about that. Doesn’t mean we won’t,” Boylen said when asked if the Bulls could actually pivot to ‘buying’ at the trade deadline, given their relative proximity to a playoff spot. “We’re in the middle of a really tough stretch of games, and a lot of games, so my focus has been on that.

“I love the guys we have,” he added. “And we’re gonna keep coaching and teaching the guys we have. I’ve got a good group, a coachable group.”

Absent from those adjectives was ‘interchangeable’ but that word has been ever-present in Boylen’s vocabulary through the ups and downs of this season. In his first full year at the helm, his primary goal remains clear.

“Because we’re establishing this system,” Boylen said when asked why, through thick and thin, the team’s playing style hasn’t changed, as it did last season after Boylen was hired. “Last year, we were tearing it down and then establishing it. Now we’re gonna keep establishing it.”

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings


Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 98-81 loss to the Kings.

1:00 - Reaction to the loss and LaVine getting double-teamed

2:50 - On Jim Boylen saying don’t expect system changes with Markkanen hurt

4:25 - Sabine’s list of things that have happened since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006

5:35 - Viewer comment on LaVine and Coby

6:40 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine

8:00 - On the importance of 1st vs 3rd quarter

9:00 - Viewer comment on possible trades

11:00 - Viewer comment on seeing Bulls without Markkanen

14:30 - On Lauri Markkanen’s hip injury and missing 4-6 weeks

18:40 - Viewer comment asking if Bulls should shut down Markkanen

19:50 - Hey Matt Peck, did you see what DRose did tonight?

21:15 - Viewer comment on what to expect from Lauri when he returns

23:40 - Viewer asking the greatest moment the Outsiders have witnessed

24:55 - On NBA naming the All-Star starters

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: