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It doesn’t get any easier for the slumping Chicago Bulls. 4 things to watch for this week with the improved Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks on deck.

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2022-01-18
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Chicago Bulls players watch the final seconds of the game against the Golden State Warriors at United Center on Jan. 14, 2022, in Chicago. The Bulls lost 138-96. John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

More than halfway through the 2021-22 season, the Chicago Bulls should be more than satisfied with their vast improvement from a year ago.

Few would’ve guessed they would be 12 games over .500 and tied for first place in the Eastern Conference after 42 games. Or that executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas and coach Billy Donovan would be in the running for two of the top offseason awards.

Yet a current four-game skid, including three blowout losses at the hands of championship-caliber teams, and uncertainty over the return dates of Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball have clouded the once idyllic picture many painted a couple of weeks ago.

Is this just a speed bump in the Bulls’ turnaround or a course correction that was due to happen over the grind of an 82-game season?

While we await the answer, here are four things to look for in the coming week.

1. Which Nikola Vučević will show up?

Vučević had one of his best offensive outputs as a Bull on Saturday with a 27-point night in Boston, but he followed that up with one of his worst (seven points on 2-for-13 shooting) in Monday’s loss in Memphis.

With LaVine out, the Bulls could use more consistency from the third part of their Big Three, especially with two more tough matchups against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks.

“You always have to look at the bigger picture,” Vučević said last week. “We understand we have to build the right habits and the things we need to do consistently to be a good team all season long.

“You can’t focus too much on the opponent or the specific game. You have to focus on yourself and make sure you do the right things over and over again so you continue to build as the season goes on.”

Donovan sat Vučević in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss, which was out of hand at that point.

DeMar DeRozan also has hit his first difficult scoring stretch since coming to the Bulls. DeRozan averaged 26.9 points while shooting 49.4% from the field during his first 32 games but has dropped to 19.7 points and 44.3% shooting in the last seven games. The Bulls have gone 2-5 in that span.

While he’s still considered an MVP candidate and a cinch to start in the All-Star Game, the Bulls need DeRozan to return to form if they hope to hang with the Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat for the top seed in the East.

And with LaVine and Ball out with knee issues, the onus is on Vučević and DeRozan to pick up the scoring slack.

“There’s a lot on those two guys’ plates,” Donovan said Monday.

That’s true of most stars. That’s why they’re considered stars.

2. There’s no break in the schedule with the Cavaliers in town.

The Bulls surge this season has partially obscured the job Cavaliers GM Koby Altman has done in resurrecting the franchise from post-LeBron James irrelevancy.

The fourth-place Cavs enter Wednesday’s game at the United Center with a 27-18 record and six wins in their last seven games, trailing the co-leading Bulls and Heat by only 1½ games in the East.

They handled the Bulls easily in December in Cleveland, led by guard Darius Garland, the fifth pick in the 2019 draft, and 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen, the former Nets center.

Allen arrived a year ago in a four-way deal centered around James Harden and is joined in the middle this season by Evan Mobley, the third pick in last year’s draft out of USC. Lauri Markkanen, the onetime core player of the Bulls rebuild, gives the Cavs another 7-footer to contend with, though he’s still mostly a perimeter threat and his 3-point shooting percentage (32.5%) is at a career low.

Cleveland’s size in the middle is imposing, particularly against a team as undersized as the Bulls. Mobley ranks third in the league with 12.4 contested shots per game, while Allen is sixth with 11.2. Garland was the Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week and is a potential first-time All Star.

The Cavs are once again a team to be respected.

“Ups and downs, goods and bads, their commitment and their approach never changes,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after Monday’s win over the Nets. “To watch them grow and watch them exceed expectations individually and as a team ... it’s never about themselves. Everything is always about the group, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

3. Coby White’s maturation at the point is significant.

White quietly is having his best season as a Bull after returning from shoulder surgery in November and a stint in the health and safety protocols. He’s shooting a career-high 39.5% from 3-point range, including 46.8% over his last 14 games. His overall shooting percentage is 51.2% since Dec. 20 on 12 attempts per game.

Donovan said White also has a better handle on how to run the offense and has been playing well alongside Ayo Dosunmu with starting guards LaVine and Ball and top reserve Alex Caruso unavailable.

White said Monday he is satisfied with his performance and has enjoyed learning and getting better at the point.

“I’m really the only point guard on the roster that’s available,” White said. “Ayo can play point guard too. He’s really good with the ball in his hands. But with Lonzo and Alex out, you just never know what happens, so you’ve got to stay ready at the end of the day.”

White should get some relief Wednesday with the likely return of Caruso.

While the Bulls don’t shoot many 3s, they lead the league with a 38.6% clip from beyond the arc, the team’s highest since shooting 38.8% in 2006-07.

4. The Bulls need to play much better in nationally televised games.

The Bulls have gone 0-3 the last week against the Nets, Warriors and Grizzlies. None of the games was close.

They’ll get another shot Friday after ESPN picked up the game in Milwaukee against the Bucks, replacing the Toronto Raptors-Washington Wizards game. The schedule eases up after Friday for the Bulls with the Magic, Thunder, Raptors, Kings and Trail Blazers on tap the rest of the month.

The Bulls might not have to worry about being switched to national TV if they don’t get back to their winning ways soon.

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