Tonight, your 9th-seeded Chicago Bulls (38-37) host the 7th-seeded Detroit Pistons (40-36). Detroit is on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off a home loss to a Deron Williams- and Chandler Parsons-free Dallas Mavericks team. With the Pistons' defeat, they have dropped to a microcosmic 1.5-game lead over Chicago for the 7th seed. That's right, a win tonight would put the Bulls at 39-37 and drop Detroit to 40-37, meaning that suddenly the Bulls would be in the 8th seed if the playoffs started today, and would also be in striking distance of that 7th seed -- and thus a first-round match-up against the Toronto Trashtors, on the opposite side of the Eastern Conference bracket from the LeBron-A-Thons. But, like practically every Bulls game since this happened, it's hardly a gimme.
Encoded in last night's Pistons loss could be the key to a Derrick Rose-less Bulls' chances of victory tonight. JJ Barea went off on a fairly-healthy Pistons squad (they've been missing Jodie Meeks since the beginning of the season, but otherwise will have every other rotation player available tonight), and Rick Carlisle did everything he could to take Andre Drummond out of the game late with some well-timed Hack-A-Drummond efforts, forcing Pistons coach/GM/locker room attendant/bus driver Stan Van Gundy to resort to the far-less-intimidating interior defense of the immortal Aron Baynes.
While the Bulls' own little-person waterbug, Aaron Brooks, is far too erratic a finisher to pull a Barrea, it does seem like having the Bulls' smaller backcourt corps (your E'Twaun Moore's, your Justin Holiday's) attack Andre Drummond relentlessly and goad him into foul trouble is a good start. As former Blog-A-Bull scribe The Hungarian Jordan mentioned earlier today, it will be absolutely imperative to have good shooting on the floor during these Hack-A-Drummond moments. He's suggesting Dougie McBuckets, but I'd love to see other McDermott or the recently-sharpshooting Threekola Mirotic out there in abundance tonight, especially when Drummond isn't, since neither of them is exactly a candidate for an All-NBA Defensive Team nomination.
The Bulls' own interior defense had plenty of problems of its own during that improbable Houston W on Thursday (okay, okay, and basically in all of 2016), since said interior D was down one Taj Gibson. Taj had to finally be shut down as he continues to deal with that nagging rib contusion -- in his own game preview today, KC Johnson suggested that Taj would sit too, which would suck. Taj's cover would probably be Drummond, but his athleticism (well, his athleticism relative to Pau), would have been nice to have for occasionally guarding Detroit's 23 year-old trade deadline acquisition Tobias Harris, a combo forward with a good stroke. In his 22 games with Detroit, Harris has shot 35.6% on 3.3 three-point attempts per game; 47.4% from the field overall; and 90% from the free-throw line. He's averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per.
Of course, an even bigger defensive issue for Hoiberg will be determining what to do about the Better Morris Twin, a sharp-shooting 'tweener forward now starting from the jump at the three spot (he had been the Pistons' power forward until it became clear, a few games after the Harris trade, that the latter player was more comfortable at the four). Morris is secretly one of the most important defensive assignments tonight, since he has really been coming on in a big way as of late. He is 93 of 174 from the field (53.4%) and 35 of 61 on 3-pointers made (57.3%) over his last 14 games (in which time Detroit has gone 9-5).
Last night, he logged a career-high 31 points (including 16 of the Pistons' 25 in the first quarter), shooting 12-of-17 overall and 6-of-8 from three. You expect this recent, slower version of Mike Dunleavy Jr. to contain this kid? Neither do I. I think Hoiball should try putting Jimmy Butler on Marcus Morris for a bit, and start Justin Holiday on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is actually having a really nice season. Sorry, MDJ, but I think your time as a Bulls starter has passed. E'Twaun Moore should run the point, since his handle is better than Holiday's (well, fine, he's better at pretty much everything than Justin Holiday is). Will Hoiberg actually ever consider benching Dunleavy long-term? No, of course not. BUT HE SHOULD.
Prognosis: Well, we are the 2.5-point Vegas favorites, you know. It's going to be a close one since the Bulls' defense is, um, spotty, and Pau Gasol's patented "turnstile" technique won't exactly give Andre Drummond pause in demolishing him on the block. So I do think the Vegas over/under is on-point. It's going to be within a five-point swing either way, and the Bulls benefit mightily from the game being at home and having one more day of rest than the exhausted Pistons. That being said, they're just way younger and more athletic than us, and Drummond always gives our big men fits. Pistons win, 95-91.
Side Question: Should we even want to make the playoffs now? Wouldn't a slide into the lottery and something around a 15-loss difference between this year and last with virtually the same roster maybe prove to Jerry Reinsdorf that serious personnel changes need to be made, on the court and off it? Here's my counter: assuming Rose is healthy and Butler's knee injury really won't require off-season surgery even as he continues to play on it, this Bulls team has a realistic shot at winning a round in the playoffs (against the Raptors, obviously). After that, the Eastern Conference has been so inconsistent that I think the Bulls, maybe the epitome of that inconsistency, could have a genuine shot at any non-LBJ team in the playoffs. Am I saying I'd favor them to win against, say, the Celtics, Heat, or Hornets in a series? Nah. But it's certainly in play. And playoff reps are always important for a young team -- a team, by the way, that's won too much to crack the top 10 of the lottery in what's genuinely regarded as a down year anyway. So really it's the difference between something like a 13th pick (assuming we didn't move up in the actual drawing) and a 17th pick. On the other hand, it would reward the relative stasis of GarPax, which is a scary thought. I... don't even know what I want, anymore. Outside of a completely new medical staff, of course.
Tip: 7 p.m., televised on WGN (NBA TV for out-of-towners). Radio broadcast on ESPN AM-1000, Sirius XM NBA.