The Bulls look to salvage a win out of a largely unsuccessful three-game west coast swing when they visit the Kings in Sacramento, Monday night. The game tips on NBC Sports Chicago at 9 p.m. CT — until then, here’s what to watch for:
Kings’ last five (2-3)
Nov. 30 — W vs. Denver Nuggets: 100-97 F/OT
Nov. 27 — L vs. Philadelphia 76ers: 97-91
Nov. 25 — L @ Boston Celtics: 103-102
Nov. 24 — W @ Washington Wizards: 113-106
Nov. 22 — L @ Brooklyn Nets: 116-97
One storyline for each team
This season hasn’t started exactly as planned for the Kings, a near-consensus preseason pick to steal a playoff spot and some hearts in a deep Western Conference. With an 8-10 record, they’re currently locked in a tie for the No. 8 seed in the West, but they’ve been without franchise cornerstones De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley for the majority of their first 18 games. They did pick up their best win of the season on Saturday, though — a tooth-and-nail 100-97 overtime victory over the surging Nuggets in which they trailed by as many as 17 points. For them, the Bulls coming to town serves as a prime opportunity to build on that momentum.
The Bulls just need a win any way they can muster it, playoff aspirations (waning fast) aside. They enter tonight’s contest on the outside-looking-in of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and 0-2 so far on a west coast swing that has featured opponents all below .500. Until further notice, Lauri Markkanen is the prevailing storyline to track with this team — he showed flashes (in an ultimately underwhelming performance) in Portland on Saturday, and the Kings’ presently depleted frontcourt could prove a favorable matchup for him.
Player to watch: Buddy Hield
Without Fox and Bagley, the Kings are lacking two of the engines of their offense. Respective understudies Cory Joseph and Nemanja Bjelica are each more-than-competent NBA players, but both boast demonstrably lower usage rates than their predecessors.
Buddy Hield has stepped up to fill that gap. Since Fox went down with a sprained ankle on Nov. 11, he’s bumped his volume (27% usage, 19.2 FGA/11.7 3PA per game) and led the team in scoring with 22.9 points per. His efficiency is down across the board, but he remains one of the more thrilling heat-check guys in the league when he gets going:
For what it’s worth, Hield and the Kings have been turnover-happy this year, which could play into the Bulls’ hands.
Battle to watch: The running game
That point leads pretty handily — pun intended — into my next one: After ranking third in the league in PACE last season, the Kings are currently producing the second-least amount of possessions per 48 minutes in the NBA. Chalk that up partially to missing Fox for nine games (and counting), but they were 28th in the league in the nine games before he went down, as well.
Whatever the reason, they play slow, which is at odds with the Bulls’ defensive style. The Bulls force turnovers at the highest rate in the NBA and, per Cleaning the Class, rank third in percent of possessions in transition (they have a 128.7 offensive rating on such plays). Especially considering Boylen will be forced to lean on the pesky three-guard lineups he so covets, the Bulls’ recipe for success will involve forcing turnovers, handling the defensive glass (the Kings rank 23rd in the league in Cleaning the Glass’ defensive rebounding rate ranks) and pushing the pace off those opportunities.
The Kings have allowed three players (Marcus Smart, Kelly Oubre and Trae Young) to have five-steal games against them, tied for the most in the league with the Warriors, Hawks and Suns. Kris Dunn is second in the NBA in steals and the Bulls lead the league in steals per game. If your fantasy team is in need of swipes tonight, hit the waiver wire stat (especially if Dunn starts).
Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are both out tonight, with both set to be evaluated in Chicago later this week. Jim Boylen has yet to officially announce who will slide into their spot in the starting lineup, but safe money’s on Dunn, who started against Portland Saturday and has assumed closing duties in the Porter/Hutchison spot, of late.
For the Kings, Fox and Bagley are both obviously no-gos. Trevor Ariza hasn’t been with the team since Nov. 19 because of a personal issue, but he’s currently listed as probable for tonight.
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