Losers of three straight, the Bulls visit Dallas tonight to take on Luka Doncic and the high-powered Mavericks. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Mavericks’ last five games (2-3)
Jan. 4 — L vs. Hornets: 123-120 (OT)
Jan. 2 — W vs. Nets: 123-111
Dec. 31 — L at Thunder: 106-101
Dec. 29 — L at Lakers: 108-95
Dec. 28 — W at Warriors: 141-121
Storyline(s) to watch
At a glance, it would seem the Bulls are catching a deathly dangerous team at the right time. Just as the Luka Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis connection was taking bloom, Porzingis has missed the team’s last three games (along with Tim Hardaway Jr.) and the Mavericks are 2-3 in their last five. But that trend works both ways. Though, at 22-13, the Mavs aren’t presently in danger of slipping too far in the Western Conference standings, they won’t take a home matchup against an inferior team for granted. Every win counts in the West. To them, the Bulls represent a prime ‘get right’ opportunity.
The Bulls roll in losers of three straight and badly needing a W to keep afloat during a rigorous January slate. Another winning team stands in front of them, but shorthanded, expect the Bulls to hang around. In the event of a tight one, late-game offense, Jim Boylen’s timeout/rotation decisions and foul trouble will be paramount.
Player to watch: Luka Doncic (especially in the pick-and-roll)
Who else? Doncic has been the single most tantalizing offensive player in basketball this season and the rudder of the league’s top-rated offense. His averages of 29.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game are almost without precedent for a second-year player; he’s scored 30 or more points in 16 games and under 20 only thrice (in one of those, he left two minutes in with a sprained ankle); and in his last game, he set a new Mavericks franchise record with 10 triple-doubles this season. That was their 35th game:
His dominance is perhaps most on display as a pick-and-roll ball handler, where his rare passing, parking lot range and downhill driving ability hurdle defenses into a choice between near-equally deadly poisons in a matter of split seconds. As a team, the Mavericks are the most efficient pick-and-roll offense in the NBA (1.03 points per play on 22.6 possessions per game) and, among those who run five or more pick-and-rolls per game, Doncic is third only to J.J. Barea and Damian Lillard in points per play.
The Bulls are the perfect antidote to that formula — they boast, by every metric, the best pick-and-roll defense in the NBA — but Doncic is transcendent, and, even banged up, the Mavs possess enough shooting, playmaking and general competence around him to make plays when it counts.
Matchup to watch: Secondary scorers
Both of these teams will (likely) be without their sharp-shooting 7-foot forwards in this one. For the Mavericks, Porzingis has already been ruled out with right knee soreness and, though Lauri Markkanen said he’s feeling better as of this morning, he is officially doubtful after spraining his ankle against Boston on Saturday.
A glaring issue for the Bulls leaps to fruition if Markkanen sits. Beyond Zach LaVine, where do the points come from? Markkanen had just found his stride, averaging 17.5 points per game since the beginning of December, but the Bulls don’t have anyone averaging more than 11 points per game other than those two. This season, Bulls players have 41 individual scoring performances of 20 points or more — 31 of those are LaVine (23) or Markkanen’s (8) doing, and of the other 10 (four from Coby White, two from Tomas Satoransky, two from Wendell Carter Jr. and one apiece from Daniel Gafford/Otto Porter Jr.), only one (Satoransky on Dec. 23) has come since November. That’s a huge hole, and one that will need to be filled if the Bulls want any hope of keeping up with Dallas tonight.
Though a small sample size, the Mavericks have had guys step up in Porzingis and Hardaway’s absences. Over their last three games, Maxi Kleber is averaging 18.7 points and 7.3 boards in 33.5 minutes per game, shooting 52% from deep on 8.3 attempts. Seth Curry’s minutes have also shot up to 27.7 per night, and he’s scoring 15.7 per game on 47.1% 3-point shooting (5.7 attempts). Doncic steals the headlines, but this Dallas team is not without ancillary weapons, especially if Hardaway (13.7 ppg, 38.2 3P%) suits up. Not by a long shot.
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