Following yet another massive blowout loss against a top-four playoff team last night (a 127-106 defeat against the Milwaukee Bucks), your Chicago Bulls will face off against the ascendant Boston Celtics tonight as they continue to limp towards the 2022 NBA playoffs.
About the only positives from the Bulls’ evening were yet another massive DeMar DeRozan game (40 points on 16-of-26 shooting, albeit with a -17 plus-minus) and a tantalizing Patrick Williams offensive contest in his first post-injury start (18 points of 7-of-9 shooting). The Paw’s promise and DeMar’s scoring prowess have been two of the few happy storylines for Chicago post-All-Star break.
The negatives last night were legion for the Bulls, but I think they start with center Nikola Vucevic, who has been a disappointment all season. Last night he was an abject disaster, scoring just seven points on 3-of-19 shooting. He also chipped in six rebounds, three assists and a steal. His Bucks counterpart, Brook Lopez, hounded him all night on both ends. Lopez scored 28 points on 9-of-14 shooting, while going to the line nine times.
Boston’s starting center, Robert “Time Lord” Williams, will be out as he continues to recover from a left knee meniscus tear. So ostensibly, Nikola Vucevic could capitalize on that absence. But it’s hard to predict a particularly effective night for the 6’10” big man, who has remained erratic on both ends of the floor for most of the season. Al Horford has slid over to the five spot, and honestly I might take Horford over Vucevic right now. The absence of Williams has also led Boston head coach Ime Udoka to promote ex-Bull Daniel Theis into the starting front court next to Horford.
Last night, Chicago was missing Zach LaVine, who sat with knee soreness, though it appears he may be able to return tonight (and is listed as probable). Alex Caruso continues to struggle with a back injury, and looked fairly hampered against the Bucks. As had been expected last night, Lonzo Ball is indeed done for the year as he battles a troublesome left knee that has been felled by a pesky bone bruise and a meniscus tear that required a January surgery.
The 45-34 Bulls are stumbling towards the finish line (they sport a brutal 7-13 record since the All-Star break), but at least they have avoided the play-in tournament in the Eastern Conference following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ unexpected 120-115 loss to Wendell Carter Jr. and the 21-59 Orlando Magic last night. WCJ, how we miss ye (not you, Lauri). It might behoove us to rest as many players as possible, with the difference between our opponent as the fifth or sixth seed relatively negligible (we are currently in sixth place, a game behind the 45-33 Toronto Raptors), and several key veteran rotation players ailing, chief among them LaVine and Caruso. As Jason and Ricky proposed on the latest Cash Considerations podcast, maybe the Bulls’ best strategy is trotting out our deep bench, alongside Patrick Williams, and letting everyone else rest up until the playoffs begin on April 16th.
Meanwhile, the 49-30 Celtics have been rolling of late. They have gone 8-2 in their last ten games and 15-4 since the All-Star break. All-Star forward Jayson Tatum, who will be battling DeMar DeRozan for All-NBA Team placement with a spectacular season of his own, has been on fire of late. The three-time All-Star is averaging 28.1 points and 6.6 rebounds across his last ten games. For the year, he is logging 27 points (on .452/.351/.854 shooting splits), eight boards and 4.4 assists across 74 contests. With Marcus Smart now given the reigns at the point, he has been more dialed-in defensively and has for the most part been Good Marcus Smart offensively. Star wing Jaylen Brown has been great too since the calendar turned over to 2022. The 35-year-old Horford has emerged revitalized in Boston, after being miscast in Philadelphia alongside Joel Embiid and then wasting away for half of the 2020-21 season in Oklahoma City before been sent home for the year (Boston then reacquired him when offloading Kemba Walker’s contract last summer). The substitution of Derrick White for Schroeder at the NBA trade deadline has also improved Boston’s depth with a smart bench scorer.
Chicago is 2-20 against the top eight teams in the NBA by record, a shockingly dismal line. For folks seeking out a silver lining tonight, one of those two victories was against the Boston Celtics, but that was a pre-Dennis Schroeder trade Celtics incarnation that had some chemistry issues and was hovering around the play-in tournament cut-off line, not the current defensive juggernaut seemingly locked into a top-four seed in the East.
Also working against the Bulls’ chances tonight is the cold hard reality that they will be playing for the second time in as many days, while the Celtics have not played since a 144-102 slaughter of Daniel Gafford and the hapless Washington Wizards on Sunday.
Can Chicago win another regular season game before the playoffs? I’m skeptical. We’re facing off against playoff or play-in teams during these final three games in Boston, the semi-beatable Charlotte Hornets, and the surprisingly-good Minnesota Timberwolves. Our three-point scoring, while generally efficient, has been scant in terms of sheer volume, and our offense has not been able to make teams pay for constant double coverages of DeMar DeRozan. The Bulls’ perimeter defense has been patchy since Caruso and Ball went down in January, and hasn’t improved much with Caruso playing hurt, Ball still out, and Ayo Dosunmu having hit the rookie wall. Our front court has been relatively ineffective (and small) all year on the defensive end. The return of the 6’7” Williams has proven helpful, though he is prone to occasional lapses.
Here’s hoping that, if we do drop a game tonight, nobody important has to exert themselves too much in the process?
Alex Caruso is listed as doubtful, so very likely he rests his back injury tonight.
LaVine, Javonte Green, Derrick Jones and Matt Thomas have all been listed as probable tonight.
For the Celtics, starting center (and probable All-Defensive Teamer) Robert Williams III remains sidelined. Jayson Tatum (knee), Jaylen Brown (knee), and Al Horford (back) are all probable to play.
7 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago