[Thanks to Alex for today's preview. Both Rose and Gasol have just been ruled out tonight -yfbb]
Well now, this is quite a thing. Here we are, a mere 11 games into this young season, and our Bulls, when we get up for a team, are a veritable road-game wrecking crew. We are the only undefeated road team left in the NBA, and we have had our full squad for exactly one game. JoNo continues to round into shape (although he looked pretty great on Monday against the Clips, laying down a Healthy Noah-esque line of 11 points, 16 rebounds and 6 assists), which is fine. We're still not sure what exactly the extent of that knee scope was this summer, so I'm cool with him using the first few months to round into shape. Point being, these Bulls are kind of kicking ass and taking names, and they're not even near their full potential, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Invariably, as is typically the case with our Bulls (8-3), key players are game-time decisions, nursing injuries that may or may not be the products of overuse. Pau Gasol is questionable for tonight with a strained left calf, having played an insane 34.8 minutes a game. D-Rose, who probably came back too soon from his double ankle injuries, continues to nurse that strained left hamstring he suffered against the Raptors last week. Here's the caveat, though: I don't really care if either of them plays. Granted, this is a feisty Sacramento squad, with DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins having taken a huge leap in the leadership department after a fantastic turn on Team USA this summer, but even a pseudo-depleted Bulls squad should be able to handle the Kings' overachieving personnel.
On paper, Sacramento should under no condition be 6-5 right now. Here is a squad that is absolutely loaded with mediocre-to-bad forwards (Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Derrick Williams, Omri Casspi, Reggie Evans), and scant on developed back court talent (Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas, both 21, are pretty raw still, and people knew that going into the season). And yet, through sheer force of will (and galvanizing coaching from former Warriors assistant Mike Malone), Cousins (averaging 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in only 30.5 minutes per game), Rudy Gay (averaging 21.5 points, 6.5 boards and 3.6 assists) and Isaiah Thomas replacement Darren Collison have brought this team storming back to (semi-) relevance in a stacked Western Conference, beating the Spurs, Suns, Clippers and Blazers thus far.
Gay has been taking way fewer long jumpers and has been more aggressive in getting foul calls, currently reaching the free throw line 7.3 times a night, a whopping 1.9 times more than he has in any season prior -- he's also knocking down 86.5% percent of those free throws. Cousins only has two technical fouls against him thus far. Collison doesn't seem to have any of the selfish gunning instincts of his predecessor and runs the offense at a competent clip (averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 assists per game, both significant career highs if those numbers hold). McLemore is finally coming into his own with a few decent shooting nights. Ramon Sessions, Casspi and Landry have all proven themselves to be competent back-ups thus far, and nobody this year is beefing with big dog Boogie, as was apparently the case last season.
Again, even if the Kings were at full health, I still think a Bulls team sans Gasol and Rose would obliterate them. That being said, it looks like the injury bug has struck Sacramento: Cousins is nursing a strained left hamstring (although it didn't seem to impede him much in a close loss to fellow ex-Kentuckian Anthony Davis on Tuesday), Gay has tendinitis in his right Achilles, and Thompson is experiencing tightness in his left quad. That's their entire starting front court, and their two best players in Cousins and the newly-extended Gay. Cousins and Thompson are probable to play tonight, but Gay is currently listed as being "questionable." So I guess we'll have to see.
The Bulls offense is currently on fire, and again, we are hardly at full strength. In addition to the various ailments afflicting Gasol, Rose and Noah, we also have two key offensive cogs finding their way in their rookie NBA seasons. Nikola Mirotic's great output against the Clippers (12 points on 5-for-10 shooting, 7 rebounds in a little over 18 minutes of play) was his first legitimately appetizing game of the young season (discounting some nice preseason moments), and Dougie McFresh's biggest highlight by far this year has been annoying Blake Griffin. The rest of the Bulls squad, especially wing starters Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy looking markedly improved over any stretch of output they gave us last season, has been incredibly stellar, and lately they've even been improving their defensive rebounding. Look for the Bulls to stay loss-free on the road with a W tonight.
Tip at 9:30 PM CST/10:30 EST on TNT/WGN/ESPN-AM 1000.