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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Chicago Bulls

The young Spurs look to build on one Eastern Conference win with another.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Chicago Bulls Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

After running roughshod over a hapless Detroit Pistons team, the San Antonio Spurs are looking to start up another win streak. Though the Spurs have certainly won more than they’ve lost this season, prolonged win streaks have still been few and far between, one of the hallmarks of young team that’s still learning how to win consistently.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected from a young group, especially one with so much turnover and so many absences, but every process needs its first notable step, and one of the next indicators should be an extended winning streak. With games against the Bulls and Cavaliers (both of whom sport losing records), the Spurs have an opportunity to come into their next matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks having built up a full head of steam.

However, they will first have to deal with the teams in front of them, and the Chicago Bulls have plenty of firepower in spite of their record. Currently just out of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, it’s been injuries and absences that have hurt the Bulls more than inferior play. With the ever-competent Billy Donovan holding the reins, Chicago is 11th in scoring and their net rating is just a hair off of San Antonio’s. The Bulls are particularly good at hitting the open man (8th in assists) and dropping the deep ball when given the opportunity (10th in the league from the 3pt line) but struggle with turnovers (30th in the NBA) so it should be a good test for the smaller, more perimeter focused lineups that Pop has been leaning towards.

Unlike in the last several matchups, they’ll be no notable injuries or quarantines here, as the Bulls will have Zack LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Otto Porter Jr. available simultaneously for once, so San Antonio will need to make sure that they resist any urges to coast into this contest. Billy Donovan has always seemed to have a gift for matching the Spurs on-court adjustments, so I’d expect this one to be tight just for history’s sake.

San Antonio can make a big step here if they take their opening seriously, and make a habit of sticking the knife in late as they did against Detroit. Good teams beat inferior teams with regularity, and this Bulls team looks to be a notch or two below the resurgent Spurs, but just avoiding falling into the hole of a potential trap game would be a win in-and-of-itself.

March 17, 2021 | 7:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: DeMar DeRozan - Out (Personal Reasons), Keita Bates-Diop - Day-to-Day (Hamstring), LaMarcus Aldridge - Day-to-Day (Pending Trade or Release)

Bulls Injuries: Garrett Temple - Out (Ankle), Devon Dotson - Out (Knee)

What to watch for:

  • The Big Man Merry-Go-Round - Prior to LaMarcus Aldridge’s exit from the rotation, most of San Antonio’s minutes were allocated to him and Jakob Poeltl, with Trey Lyles as the next significant beneficiary due to his ability to stretch the floor when Poeltl or Aldridge were playing center. With Aldridge on the way out it looked as if Lyles might experience an expanded role, but so far no big man outside of Poeltl and a small-ball Rudy Gay have seen consistent minutes in spite of the opening. Both Luka Samanic and Drew Eubanks have played stints of 20+ minutes in the last month, seemingly due to Covid-19 enforced roster shortages, but Popovich has appeared to lean into playing smaller lineups, and Lyles, Eubanks, and Samanic have all been on the receiving end of garbage-time minutes over the last two weeks. This is particularly interesting in the case of Luka Samanic, whose minutes rose to almost 18 per game through the end of February and the start of March. Eubanks appears to have the edge as next man off of the bench, but with so many changes over the season thus far, it’s hard to know who’ll be the next man up on a regular basis.
  • Devin Vassell vs. Zack LaVine: If you haven’t heard about Devin Vassell’s already-blossoming defensive wizardry this season, you must have been living under a rock, because San Antonio’s 1st round pick has been an absolute revelation on that end when he’s gotten playing time. Listed erroneously at six-foot-five, Vassell is a spidery six-foot-seven and has the lateral quickness and footwork (thought not the bulk) of a young Ron Artest, and it’s almost certain that Pop will test his mettle against Chicago’s primary offensive scorer. LaVine (himself erroneously listed at 6’6”) is a similarly lengthy player who understands how to fully leverage that speed and length on the offensive end. Gifted at slithering by most defenders, LaVine is capable of making sharp passes when doubled (5 assists per game), and is also sporting a 43% mark from long-distance. Gifted though Vassell is, this has the potential to be an incredibly tricky assignment, as well as a major statement for the first-year player. Of all the matchups in this game, you can bet both I and the Spurs brass will be keeping a particularly close eye on this one.

For the Bulls’ fans’ perspective, visit Blog a Bull.

PtR’s Game thread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.