The Jazz roll into the United Center one of the hottest teams in the league, which would make a Bulls win all that sweeter. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Jazz’s last five games (4-1)
Dec. 30 — W vs. Pistons: 104-81
Dec. 28 — W at Clippers: 120-107
Dec. 26 — W vs. Trail Blazers: 121-115
Dec. 23 — L at Heat: 107-104
Dec. 21 — W at Hornets: 114-107
Storyline(s) to watch
After a tumultuous beginning of the season relative to expectations, the Jazz are beginning to find their tune. They enter the this one 21-12, winners of eight of their last nine and two games removed from knocking off the Clippers (at full strength) in LA. For the foreseeable future, they’ll be without Mike Conley (hamstring), who’s enduring a nightmarish season, but their current lengthy, sharp-shooting starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert has been shredding opponents on both ends of the floor. Tonight, the Bulls are getting a good team at the wrong time.
Both teams haven’t played since Dec. 30, so fresh legs should abound. The Bulls’ last loss saw them struggle mightily with the Bucks’ length and defensive versatility; well, here’s another team that brings that in droves. The Jazz are, of course, more mortal than Milwaukee, but a win tonight remains a tall order (which, to look at it another way, would make one that much sweeter).
Player to watch: Rudy Gobert
Though Gobert is averaging his lowest blocks per game total (1.9) since his rookie year, his impact on the Jazz’s defense remains profound. When he’s on the floor, Jazz opponents take only 31.4% of the field goals at the rim and a whopping 35.5% from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass’ calculations.
Even those impressive on/off numbers have tapered a tad compared to his transcendent mid-20s, but Gobert remains an enormous challenge for a Bulls team that likes to shoot around the basket, struggles to do so efficiently and gets shots blocked at an unnatural rate.
And all that's without mentioning, he’s second in the NBA in both rebounds per game (14.2) and field goal percentage (68.2%). He’s the exact type of player the Bulls have so often struggled with this season — his performance tonight will be an interesting barometer of the growth of guys like Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.
Side note: This would be a perfect game to see Wendell Carter Jr. continue to dust off his jumper. The Jazz switch a ton, but prefer to keep Gobert anchored around the basket — if the Bulls decide to try to exploit that, the worst case is a couple missed open jimmies for Carter. The best case (if he makes a few) could be pulling Gobert out from the paint, opening up some driving and cutting lanes.
Matchup to watch: Pace of play
If the Jazz have their way, this game will be a plodding affair. They rank 17th in the NBA in pace and though they employ a few potentially dangerous transition weapons, they rank 27th in the league in percentage of total points off fastbreak opportunities (the Bulls are sixth in that metric).
Utah has also demonstrated a penchant for turnovers, averaging 16 per game as a team (27th in the NBA). This is the formula for a Bulls win, as it is on all nights: nudge their opponent into errors and run.
Jim Boylen said Kris Dunn will take lead responsibilities handling the dynamic Donovan Mitchell. If Dunn is his typical hounding self and loose balls are flying, the Bulls could find an edge. Speaking of...
Battle to watch: Donovan Mitchell vs. Zach LaVine
This one could be a lot of fun. Mitchell is having the best all-around season of his young career, averaging career-high 25.2 points on improved efficiency, and has moved into a pseudo-point guard role with the Jazz starters in Conley’s absence. Zach LaVine is in the midst of an All-Star push after a month of December in which he averaged 25.1 points a game and shot an impressive 39.3% on 8.4 3-point attempts per game.
Obviously these two aren’t in direct competition for an All-Star spot, but it’s a chance for LaVine to go toe-to-toe with another premiere scoring guard and continue asserting his case. If this one goes down to the wire, a one-on-one showdown between them would be scintillating.
Just one: After fully participating in practice on Wednesday, Chandler Hutchison was a full go at shootaround this morning. Boylen called him a gametime decision.
Based on Boylen’s assessment of Dunn’s role guarding Mitchell, it didn’t sound like Hutchison would unseat Dunn in the starting lineup even if he does play. More to come as the day progresses.
Chandler Hutchison will NOT play against the Utah Jazz, though he is healthy.
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