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The Bulls closed out last week on the right track, picking up back-to-back wins against Detroit and Cleveland after five straight losses. As we look ahead to this week out west, the team chemistry, Zach LaVine’s knee injury and the Bulls’ remaining schedule are on my mind.
The schedule does not slow down
The stretch run is here. There are 15 games left in the season and the Bulls are squarely in the mix for a top-four seed. The Bulls haven’t had home-court advantage in the first round since Tom Thibodeau’s final year as head coach in 2014-15. They haven’t even made the playoffs since the Three Alphas season of 2016-17.
The schedule the rest of the way is tough. They have the second hardest remaining strength of schedule, with an average opponent win percentage of .546.
Nine of the 15 games are on the road, where the Bulls record for the season is 16-16. They have 10 games against teams whose record is better than .500 where their record is a frighteningly bad 13-19. Four more are against teams in the play-in hunt.
Despite that, the Bulls have positioned themselves well. The two No. 5 seeds are all within a game of each other, and moving up to the third spot is technically attainable. That would be best-case scenario to get the Cavs or Raptors in the first round and avoid the Heat, 76ers, Bucks, Celtics and Nets.
League leaders in team chemistry
I wrote last week about how Caruso’s return reshapes the Bulls defensive identity, but he also elevates the camaraderie. It’s one of the most underappreciated aspects of the team. They’re the league leaders in hugs per 100 possessions and the most wholesome bunch in recent Bulls memory.
“We have great chemistry. I think everybody on the team is pulling for whoever it is at the time that needs it. And [Saturday night] it was me,” Caruso said. “I think that’s just a product of how much I pour into my teammates and they pour into me. When you have that kind of unselfishness and selflessness on the team, it goes a long way. It picks you up in tough moments in a game.”
This couldn’t be further from the Three Alphas 2016-17 season. No more “my vets” instagrams.
Zach’s knee injury is officially scaring me
LaVine was held out of Saturday’s game against the Cavs. It sounds like the Bulls are just being cautious as Billy Donovan reiterated before the game that this is a pain management thing and the doctors are still comfortable with him playing.
“When he (LaVine) feels good, he wants to play. He wants to play all the time. But I think that he had some discomfort there, wasn’t feeling great,” Donovan told reporters before the game against the Cavs on Saturday. “And I think the decision was made by Zach and the medical staff that it’s better just to take tonight off and just see where he’s at come tomorrow and going into Sacramento (on Monday).”
I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes Monday’s game against Sacramento off too — that would give him five days off between games and another chance to feel his best (which he previously admitted is only 70-80 percent) ahead of two huge games against the Jazz and Suns.
It goes without saying how important health is to this team’s success. According to Jeff Stots of instreetclothes.com, the Bulls have lost 253 games to injury or illness which ranks seventh in the NBA for highest total. Patrick Williams and Lonzo Ball should rejoin the Bulls soon, but they are still only 1-14 against the top four teams in each conference.
Even if LaVine was 100 percent healthy, the road ahead would be a tough one.
Week ahead predictions:
The renewed sense of team chemistry with Caruso back in the lineup is a thing of beauty, but LaVine’s knee injury and the remaining schedule worry me for the week ahead.
Monday @ Kings: Tristan Thompson revenge game? Mark it down as a W.
Wednesday @ Jazz: Utah is underperforming their point differential. They’re the league’s best offense and a top 10 defense. Getting one of two against the Jazz and Suns would be huge, but I think they drop this one.
Friday @ Suns: Chris Paul has been out since Feb. 20 with a thumb fracture, and the Suns have gone 5-4 in his absence. They still own the fourth-best point differential over the last two weeks, but I’ll go with the Bulls here. Sorry to our brothers and sisters over at PHNX.
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