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Bulls vs. Jazz preview and thread: can Chicago erase that last bad performance

Bulls look to rebound against one of the best in the West

NBA: Utah Jazz at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan and the rest of your Chicago Bulls head to Utah to take on Donovan Mitchell and his Jazz in a cross-conference battle of playoff-bound pseudo-contenders tonight.

The 41-27 Bulls and the 42-26 Jazz, both the No. 4 seeds in their respective conferences, may on paper appear to be evenly matched. Unfortunately, recent trends would indicate that the Jazz, especially at home, have a significant advantage against a Bulls team that has looked listless in dropping six of its last eight contests. The Bulls have struggled on defense without Lonzo Ball for all eight of those games and Alex Caruso for six of them, and have been exposed on offense as being over-reliant on the brilliance of DeMar DeRozan to bail them out in late-game situations with his incredible arsenal of jumpers.

With Caruso now back in the lineup and rookie stud Ayo Dosunmu locked-in, the Bulls may be able to at least make Jazz All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell work for his offense tonight. Running point, old man Mike Conley (who is two months older than this writer, which makes him basketball-old) is always a threat to get hot on a given night, and his shooting percentages remain good though he is less proactive as a scorer. Dosunmu should still get the start at point guard tonight and could match up well in his defensive minutes against Conley, but Coby White will look to get hot from long range in major bench minutes.

The Jazz will be missing starting small forward Bojan Bogdanovic and his replacement, Danuel House, with injuries, which is a lucky break for DeMar DeRozan defensively. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson has had an inefficient shooting season this year, but that hasn’t affected his willingness to fire away. He scored a career-high 45 points (on 15-of-21 shooting) off the bench for Utah in a 134-125 win over the Kings last week.

But the real problem is regular-season behemoth Rudy Gobert, who will probably give starting Bulls center Nikola Vucevic fits. The perennial All-Defensive Teamer Gobert can get played off the floor in effective small-ball lineups, so I’m sure Billy Donovan will at least try a tiny front court with, say, 6’4” Javonte Green at the four and long-limbed 6’5” Derrick Jones Jr. at the five, for at least a few minutes against the Stifle Tower.

After an insane February, DeMar DeRozan has come down to earth a bit this month. That’s due in part to opposing defenses looking to trap DeMVP early and often, and daring the rest of the Bulls to create. Another issue when this happens is that DeMar’s fellow Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine has not been himself. Though his counting stats have been okay, he appears to have lost some explosiveness as he grapples with the lingering knee soreness that may require offseason surgery.

After one of the most pathetic first halves of basketball these new-look Bulls have put forth this season, Chicago made a valiant rally to lose by mere single digits, 112-103, against a terrible Sacramento Kings team on Monday. Granted, the Bulls were without starting point guard Lonzo Ball and (possibly starting?) power forward Patrick Williams. Despite those absences, though, the Bulls certainly had enough talent to put together a better effort than they did. The team converted just 40.9% of its field goals against one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.

The Bulls’ loss to the Kings also highlights one of their biggest defensive vulnerabilities: the limitations of their current front court rotation. Vooch may have scored 23 points on 10-of-22 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, but he was fitfully effective on defense. He could not contain Kings center Domantas Sabonis in the game’s first half, but did at least show some fight in the third quarter. Chicago’s undersized “bigs” in Green and Jones, plus decently-sized backup center Tristan Thompson, provided almost nothing on offense and were not reliable defensively.

That Kings loss could represent a dangerous turning point for the Bulls down the home stretch of the NBA regular season. Given that the Bulls have some key absences and rotation players like All-Star Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso somewhat limited by injuries, the team’s slide down the Eastern Conference standings makes some sense. That doesn’t make it any more bearable to watch.

Chicago has some intimidating matchups through the rest of its 11 games, even beyond tonight. To retain home court advantage, it will need to beat quality clubs, and not fall in trap games to lottery losers like the Kings. How this less-than-healthy team responds to a terrible effort on Monday will be a good litmus test down the regular season’s home stretch.

The fourth-seeded Bulls are currently just three games clear of the ascendent Raptors (winners of four straight), who currently occupy the seventh seed in the East with a 38-30 record. Chicago will need every win it can get to avoid falling into the play-in tournament.

Injury Report:

For the Jazz, starting small forward Bojan Bogdanovic (left calf strain), plus weirdly-valuable rotation swingman Danuel House (left knee bone bruise), who had been Bogdanovic’s replacement as a starter, and little-used second-year center Udoka Azubuike (right ankle sprain) are all unavailable. Backup point guard Trent Forrest (right wrist sprain) is questionable to play.

For the Bulls, Zach LaVine, who played on Monday but sat on Saturday with knee soreness, has been listed as probable to suit up. Lonzo Ball (left knee meniscus tear) and Patrick Williams (left wrist ligament tear) remain out.

Game Time:

8 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago

Odds:

The Jazz are listed as seven-point favorites tonight, which feels about right. The over/under set for the cumulative game score suggests a low-scoring affair, at 223 total points. (All info via DraftKings.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.)