The NBA’s schedule is unforgiving. Just hours after losing to the Raptors in an extremely emotional night, the Spurs had to travel to Chicago to take on the Bulls on the second game of a back-to-back.
Normally a matchup against the bad and severely shorthanded Bulls would be penciled in as a win, but the fact that it’s happening only hours after such a painful, draining day combined with San Antonio’s recent history of struggling against some of the East’s worst teams make a letdown performance feel like a real possibility. The hope is that sadness will turn to strength for the Spurs and that seeing themselves outside of the playoffs looking in at this point of the season will provide them with the sense of urgency necessary to beat a clearly inferior opponent.
One of the main reasons for optimism is the team’s improved play on the road during the last month. The Spurs have gotten as many wins away from the AT&T Center in January as they did in all the rest of the season combined, and some of those have been against quality teams. The turnaround has been fueled by the offense, as San Antonio continues to hemorrhage points on the road, but a visit to one of the weakest offensive teams in the league presents a perfect opportunity to show growth on defense.
There were some good news on that front in the loss to the Raptors, as the duo of Derrick White and Dejounte Murray finally got some extended playing time and proved to be as disruptive as expected on its own end. The two guards still look like a questionable fit on offense, but should continue to get minutes together whenever the Spurs need stops. San Antonio’s ceiling as a defensive team will be raised greatly if that pairing works, so let’s hope that Gregg Popovich continues to give it a shot against the Bulls.
San Antonio Spurs (20-25) at Chicago Bulls (18-30)
January 27, 2020 | 7:00 PM CT
Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)
Spurs Injuries: None.
Bulls Injuries: Lauri Markkanen (hip - out), Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle - out), Daniel Gafford (thumb - out), Otto Porter Jr. (foot - out).
The Spurs have a big edge inside
The injury bug has bit the Bulls’ frontcourt hard. Lauri Markkanen’s recent injury has left Chicago, which was already missing Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie Daniel Gafford, severely undermanned at the big men positions. Coach Jim Boylen had to start Luke Kornet and give Cristiano Felicio 20 minutes just to have the center spot manned in the recent win against the Cavaliers. The only proven power forward in the roster left standing is Thaddeus Young, who had to play 35 minutes in Cleveland to prevent a very ineffective Denzel Valentine from getting extended playing time.
Against an opponent as deprived of quality size as these Bulls, the Spurs would be foolish to not look for an edge inside by attacking the glass and posting up LaMarcus Aldridge. Yet it will be interesting to see if Gregg Popovich really goes away from the small lineups he’s been trotting out a lot recently just to try to expose the Bulls’ lack of depth.
It might all come down to which version of Trey Lyles shows up. If Lyles defends Thad Young well and makes his open looks, the Spurs might stay big and try to punish Chicago with size. If he doesn’t, they’ll have to go small and hope their ball handlers can attack off the dribble and take advantage of the Bulls questionable rim protection. Either way, San Antonio should win the battle in the paint.
LaVine is the offense for the Bulls
In the matchup against the Cavaliers on Saturday Zach LaVine had 48 points in 30 shots to go with eight assists to lead the Bulls to a win. The night before against the Kings, however, he was held to 21 points in 21 shots and had more turnovers than assists. In that game, the Bulls only managed to score 81 points, which was their second lowest mark of the season.
With Markkanen and Carter Jr. sidelined, Chicago relies almost exclusively on LaVine to generate points for himself and others. Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young are solid vets, but they can’t be relied on to be volume scorers. Kris Dunn is a defensive specialist. Coby White has potential as a go-to option, but so far he’s been terribly inefficient and has not been able create for others consistently. The rest of the roster is comprised of underwhelming young guys and a couple of journeymen.
Unless someone unexpectedly has a career night, the Bulls will have a lot of trouble scoring if the Spurs can contain LaVine. Keep him in check and escaping Chicago with a win becomes a very realistic possibility.
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