The Bulls continued their regression to their early season form when they lost 98-104 to the Kings on Monday. The loss came despite a 28-9 first quarter in a game which saw Zach LaVine score 27 points. They now find themselves in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 18-35. They are just one game from last place.
The 34-23 Timberwolves went down in memorable fashion on Wednesday, losing 138-140 in overtime against Cleveland behind a LeBron James block and then buzzer-beater in the last two seconds of the game. Jimmy Butler was sensational in the game, scoring 35 points on 14-21 shooting and dishing out six assists, while Karl-Anthony Towns connected on all six of his 3-point attempts on his way to 30 points and ten boards. They remain in fourth place in the West.
Three keys to the game
Bad Bulls - The Bulls started the season as the worst team in the league, before going on an unexpectedly successful stretch through December. They have since returned to their former selves, losing their past seven games. In that span, they have a net rating of -10.7, worse than every other team in the league except for Phoenix.
Butler’s form - Butler has been terrific since returning from injury for Minnesota. He has progressively increased his scoring in all of his past six games, scoring 21, 24, 25, 28, 30, and finally 35 points, and has also averaged 5.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.4 steals per night.
Points off turnovers - Minnesota scores heavily through turnovers, with their 18.6 points off turnovers a night the third most in the league. Chicago, though, for all their flaws are relatively stingy with the basketball, conceding just 13.8 turnovers per night.
Matchup to watch
Zach LaVine vs Jimmy Butler - Whether these two guys spend a lot of time on each other remains to be seen, but as Minnesota’s best defensive player Butler may well end up guarding the dangerous LaVine for large periods. LaVine has played just 11 games this season since returning from an ACL injury, and in this time has averaged 15.6 points. He has elevated his play recently though, scoring 20 or more points in all of his last three games. Butler is an all-star and one of the best two-way players in the game, and if he matches up against LaVine will likely do a good job of stifling him. He averages 22.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and two steals a night this season, and regularly shuts down the opponent’s most dangerous player.
Chicago Bulls predicted starting lineup
PG - Jerian Grant | SG - Zach LaVine | SF - Justin Holiday | PF - Bobby Portis | C - Robin Lopez
Minnesota Timberwolves predicted starting lineup
PG - Jeff Teague | SG - Andrew Wiggins | SF - Jimmy Butler | PF - Taj Gibson | C - Karl-Anthony Towns
Towns will be a player who Chicago need to be very wary of in this game. He has played against Chicago just four times, but has been a menace in these games, averaging 20.3 points, 12 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.5 blocks a night. Lopez is a solid inside defender, but won’t have the agility to keep pace with Towns around the perimeter, and after going 6/6 from deep in his last game, Towns will no doubt be looking to take Lopez all over the floor in this game.
The Bulls have been given just a 6.5 point head start in this game, and this won’t be enough against Minnesota. The Timberwolves are capable of scoring very heavily, and against what has been a very leaky defense of late, they should be able to do enough to cover this line.
Minnesota will be able to take this one out pretty easily. Chicago have gone into tank mode, and have neither the ability nor the desire to win a whole lot of games. Minnesota, in contrast, are keeping up with the best teams in the west and are poised to make their first playoff appearance in a long, long time.
In Butler and Towns, they will have comfortably the two best players on the floor, and arguments could be made that their entire starting five is better than every player on Chicago’s roster. The Timberwolves haven’t been good on the road this season, but against the Bulls, they shouldn’t have too many problems. They’ll leave Chicago with a 114-99 victory.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 9:30pm ET.