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Bulls vs. Wizards game preview, lineups, injury report

No Butler and no Wade make Bulls something something

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

[Thanks to Paul for today’s game preview. Please sign up if you’re interested in doing one -yfbb]

Chicago Bulls (19-19) vs. Washington Wizards (18-18)

Verizon Center: Washington D.C.

6:00 p.m. CDT

Television Coverage: CSN-Mid-Atlantic; CSN-Chicago

Projected Stating Lineups:


Chicago Bulls

Washington Wizards

Head Coach

Fred Hoiberg

Scott Brooks

Point Guard

Michael Carter-Williams

John Wall

Shooting Guard

Jerian Grant

Bradley Beal

Small Forward

Doug McDermott

Otto Porter

Power Forward

Taj Gibson

Markieff Morris

Center

Robin Lopez

Marcin Gortat

Injury Report

The Chicago Bulls will head to Washington D.C. tonight without their two best players.

Jimmy Butler is sick and after his “flu game” on Monday night didn’t go according to plan, the Bulls announced that he wouldn’t travel with the team for the game tonight against the Wizards.

Guard Dwyane Wade will get a scheduled day of rest on the second night of a back-to-back and therefore won’t play against the Wizards either. After missing the last three games with a lingering left ankle sprain, rookie Denzel Valentine will play tonight.

For the Wizards, backup center Ian Mahinmi will have his knee evaluated in late December before the team establishes a return date for the French-born big man. Bradley Beal is likely to play in the game tonight. He rolled his ankle in the Wizard’s win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday afternoon. He did return to that game after rolling his ankle in the first half, but sources spotted him limping around the locker room after the game concluded.

Preview:

Mediocre has been the most appropriate label to use when describing the play of both teams through the first couple months of the season. The Wizards climbed back to the .500 mark on Sunday afternoon with a 107-101 win against the Milwaukee Bucks. On the season, they have a net rating of -0.48 through 36 games. The Chicago Bulls slipped back to the .500 mark after a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night. The Bull’s net rating is -0.05 through 38 games.

The Bulls and the Wizards split their first two matchups of the season. Both games featured almost identical scores, but with drastically different results.

On Nov. 12, the Washington Wizards limped into the United Center with a 2-7 record and without their dynamic guard tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal. It should have been a wire-to-wire victory for the Bulls who had everybody available except for Michael Carter-Williams that night. Unfortunately, that isn't how the game played out. The Wizards held a 56-53 advantage at halftime, and it took a 37 point, 38-minute effort from Jimmy Butler to help the Bulls pull away from the hapless Wizards in the second half. The Bulls won the game 106-95. Even when the Bulls won, they still kind of lost as Doug McDermott sustained a concussion that kept him out for ten games.

Two and a half weeks ago, the Wizards made a triumphant return to Chicago as they literally ran the Bulls out of the United Center. Both Wall and Beal played this time, and combined for 44 points as the Wizards scored 32 fast break points en route to a 107-97 victory. It was the Bulls fourth loss in five nights as Chicago posted a 1-5 record in the two weeks leading up to their 119-100 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Christmas Day.

The Bulls have played much better recently. They beat the Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors (all Eastern Conference playoff teams) last week. However, they followed these impressive victories up with a 109-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both Jimmy Butler (illness) and Dwyane Wade (scheduled rest) will sit out tonight giving the Wizards a decided advantage.

Like the Bulls, the Wizards have played much better lately, recording a 6-4 record in their last ten games.

After a 5-10 start to the season, the Wizards clawed their way back to the .500 mark with a 107-101 win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday. Star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal average a combined 45.3 points per game which accounts for about 43 percent of the Wizards total offense. All five starters average in double-digits, but the Wizard's "historically bad" bench doesn't do the team any favors (more on this later).

The Wizards are 9-7 against the Bulls in the regular season since the 2012-2013 season. They beat the Bulls 4-1 in a 2014 playoff series. Is there any magic left in the Wizard's wands for their showdown against the Bulls in the nation’s capital tonight? Will they even need to bring their magic wands to beat a Bulls team that won’t have their two leading scorers?

Keys to the Game:

Limit Fast break Points (and turnovers)

The Washington Wizards haven't averaged the sixth-most fast break points per game (15.0) in the NBA this season by accident, according to head coach Scott Brooks:

We made a conscious effort about a dozen or 14 games ago to play faster. We've got all this athleticism and we have one of the fastest point guards (Wall) in the league. We want to be able to utilize it every trip down the court.

The 15.8 turnovers per game the Wizards have generated this season (3rd in the NBA) certainly helps them get out in transition. As Brooks eluded to in the above quote, having one of the fastest point guards in the league on your roster doesn't hurt either. In the Dec. 21 matchup between the two teams, Wall's lightning fast quickness proved too much for the Bulls to handle.

Wall begins streaking down the court as soon as he sees the miss and a nice outlet pass leads to an easy dunk on a Bulls defense that doesn't get back in time (except Rajon Rondo who doesn't make a great effort to stop Wall's dunk).

Wall's ability to hit tough shots around the rim makes him a nightmare in transition. In the above play, the Wizards push the ball up the court and create offense before the defense can get set. In the second half of the play, the Wizards once again utilize a quick outlet pass off a miss to generate transition offense at the other end of the floor. In this game, the Wizards used a 32-16 advantage in fast break points to beat the Bulls.

According to NBA.com, the Wizards have five players who are in the 70th percentile or above in points per possession in transition, and three players who get into transition on over 19 percent of their total plays. Pushing the ball in transition is a priority for this team and something the Bulls need to make a cognizant effort to try to neutralize.

How can the Bulls prevent the Wizards from running all over them in transition? It starts with taking care of the ball against the third-best team in the NBA at generating turnovers. The Wizards will provide a particularly difficult test for Michael Carter-Williams who leads the Bulls with 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes. John Wall, who averages the most steals per game in the NBA, is a difficult assignment for Carter-Williams both offensively and defensively.

Stopping the Wizards in transition also comes down to KYP (knowing your personnel). The Bulls guards need to know that Wall and Beal are going to streak down the court after missed baskets and must be prepared to run with them as soon as they see a Wizard's player secure a rebound. A team-wide commitment to hustle back on defense could go a long way towards preventing the Wizards from getting a bunch of easy baskets in transition.

In games this season where the Bulls have struggled to stop opponents in transition, a lack of effort has been an issue.

Poor effort counter: Michael Carter-Williams (an unconvincing "flop" thing), Jimmy Butler (doesn't rotate over to stop the ball), Robin Lopez (reaches instead of moving his feet to get in front of LeBron James), and Dwyane Wade (minimal effort to get back in transition).

Although the stats suggest that the Bulls aren’t egregious at defending in transition, there have been games where good transition teams have torched Chicago. If the Wizards run all over the Bulls like the Bucks, Thunder, and Raptors (before they blew a huge lead) did, it is unlikely that the Bulls win this game especially without their two star players.

Bulls Bench Needs to Play Well; No-Names Need to Step Up

In early December, I wrote a Fanpost on this site about the monumental struggles of the Bulls bench. Since then, things have changed.

In the last five games, the Bulls bench has the fifth-best efficiency recap rating in the NBA. A vast improvement compared to the early part of the season when the Bulls were in the NBA’s cellar in this statistical category. The Bulls bench has suddenly transformed from a weakness to an advantage that they can utilize on an almost nightly basis.

Even with a shorter bench due to not having Butler and Wade available for this game, the Bulls may still have an advantage over a Wizard’s bench that has been awful for the entire season. The Wizard’s bench -16.4 efficiency recap rating is the worst in the NBA by a wide margin (second worst is Minnesota at -12.2).

The ascension of the Bulls bench has predictably coincided with smarter lineup choices from head coach Fred Hoiberg and overall better efforts from a few key reserves.

A shorter bench will challenge Hoiberg to continue to make smart rotation decisions. He can’t fall back on the Butler-Mirotic-McDermott-Felicio-Wade lineup (or some close variation) without his two best players. Hoiberg’s ability to put his players in position to succeed will determine how well the Bulls shortened bench unit plays tonight.

With key bench players such as Jerian Grant and Doug McDermott probably entering the starting lineup tonight because of the absence of Butler and Wade, the Bulls need a surprise bench hero to put up good numbers. Denzel Valentine flashed some potential with his nine-point effort against the Hornets last week. Bobby Portis was at one time a key reserve and has scored in double-digits twice this season. Isaiah Canaan is streaky, and might still have it in him to score in bulk from 3-point land. Cristiano Felicio has averaged 5.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and has been incredibly active all season on the offensive glass and on defense. He is the most likely player to give the Bulls a spark off the bench.

And how about that Rajon Rondo guy?

A competent version of the Bulls infamous bench mob has returned to the United Center. These days, the Bulls bench has transformed from a weakness to a categorical advantage on most nights. If the Bulls bench continues to play well tonight and a few seldom-used players step it up, it should have no issue dominating a laughably weak Wizards second unit.

Playoff Mindset

The Bulls appalling habit of beating the very best teams only to fall against the mediocre and bad teams has reared its ugly head again over the last five games. After back-to-back losses against the middling Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks right before the New Year, the Bulls began 2017 with impressive wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers (first in the East), Toronto Raptors (second in the East) and the Charlotte Hornets (fourth in the East at the time of the game). However, the Thunder served the Bulls a piece of humble pie with their 109-94 victory at the United Center. Nonetheless, the Bulls are 3-1 during the New Year with some impressive victories sprinkled in there.

New Year, New Bulls? Not so fast. Before giving this team premature pats on the back, we need to see how they play against a team without a flashy record. Playing poorly in trap games (this game against Washington would constitute as just that since the Bulls are coming off games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder respectively), has been the Bulls calling card for the last couple of seasons. Changing this flaw begins with a conscious re-calibration of how the Bulls approach games.

It is easy to sum up what the Bulls need to do to execute this re-calibration using all the tired clichés. Play with energy and pride, hustle, don't take any team for granted, do the little things like boxing out and getting loose balls. The Bulls need to do all these things against the Wizards to win this game. However, it can't stop with just this one game. The Bulls need to begin to ingrain these tenets of winning basketball into how they approach every game for the rest of the season.

The Bulls are 7-11 against the number 3-12 seeds in the Eastern Conference. This is problematic because these are the teams the Bulls need to beat in order to 1). secure a spot in the playoffs and 2). get as good of a seed as possible. Games like the matchup against the Wizards tonight are the ones the Bulls will look back at and kick themselves should they lose.

If the Bulls are serious about making the playoffs, they need to begin approaching games against opponents who, like them, are also battling for Eastern Conference playoff spots or positioning with a playoff mentality

As for a prediction for tonight’s game, it is difficult to bet on the Bulls when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade aren’t playing.