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Three keys for Bulls against Spurs: Pop faces biggest challenge in trying to extend Spurs playoff streak

Now that Manu Ginobili has joined Tim Duncan in retirement, Tony Parker is in Charlotte and Kawhi Leonard has been traded to Toronto, the Spurs’ NBA record 21-year playoff streak looks to be in serious jeopardy.

Sure, Gregg Popovich is still coaching the team and terrorizing network courtside reporters, but the San Antonio roster is now an odd mix of newcomers and lightly regarded young players. The Spurs are off to a 9-10 start with Pop still trying to figure out how to best utilize the depleted talent on hand.

San Antonio acquired All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and young center Jakob Poeltl in the Leonard trade, and DeRozan is certainly doing his part, leading the team in scoring (24.9), assists (6.3) and steals (1). DeRozan is shooting 48.5 percent from the field, but only 20 percent from the 3-point line, which is an area he worked on improving during the 2017-18 season with Toronto. Because of the Spurs’ depth issues, he’s also been playing a lot of minutes at the small forward position which eliminates his normal size advantage shooting over smaller shooting guards.

After promising young point guard Dejounte Murray suffered a season-ending injury back in October, Popovich has been forced to juggle several players at that critical spot, with veteran Patty Mills the most distinguished of a group that also includes Bryn Forbes, Derrick White and occasionally former Bull Marco Belinelli, who’s still capable of catching fire off the bench. The result has been an inconsistent offense prone to long droughts when DeRozan and All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge are out of the lineup.

Aldridge anchors the front court that also includes veterans Rudy Gay and Dante Cunningham. Gay has been solid for San Antonio after returning from an Achilles’ tendon injury two years ago. He’s third on the team in scoring, averaging 14.5 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 47 percent from the 3-point line. Gay is also pulling down 7.5 rebounds per game at the power forward spot. Cunningham has started 16 of the Spurs’ 19 games but he’s no more than a journeyman, averaging 5 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes.

Another former Bull, Pau Gasol, was supposed to team up with Aldridge up front, but Gasol has been limited to just 9 games because of a foot injury and hasn’t played since Nov. 4. In his absence, 6-foot-10 Latvian forward Davis Bertans has been getting more playing time, and he responded with one of his best games Saturday in Milwaukee, going for 17 points and 6 rebounds in the Spurs’ 135-129 loss.

Given the depth of playoff-worthy teams in the West, Popovich will have to work some of his magic to get this squad back to the postseason. The Spurs are hoping to get top draft pick Lonnie Walker IV back from a knee injury soon, but it’s unlikely he’ll be the answer to the issues at point guard.

DeRozan and Aldridge are still quality NBA scorers but the question remains: Can they get enough help on a nightly basis for San Antonio to get the 46-48 wins they’ll need to crack the eight-team playoff field in the West? My guess is probably not.

Now to the matchup Monday night at the United Center. What must the Bulls do to have a chance at grabbing a win before the start of a four-game road trip?

  1. BOX OUT.Karl-Anthony Towns physically dominated the Bulls’ frontcourt during Saturday’s game in Minneapolis, finishing with 35 points and 22 rebounds. The Timberwolves outrebounded the Bulls 58-40 and had a 58-36 advantage in points in the paint. San Antonio isn’t as physical with Aldridge and Poeltl splitting the center minutes and Gay and Bertans at the power forward spot, but if the Bulls don’t clean up this area, it could be another long night.
  2. KEEP CARTER ON THE COURT.The Bulls’ 19-year-old rookie center has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect he’s getting from NBA officials. Carter hit the low point of his rookie season on Saturday when Towns threw him around like a rag doll on the way to his 35-22 night. Carter did play 32 minutes, but finished the game with five fouls. He’s the best equipped Bulls’ center to defend Aldridge’s inside-outside skillset, so avoiding early foul trouble on Monday will be critical.
  3. MORE HELP FROM THE BENCH.With Chandler Hutchison missing the last three games because of back spasms, the Bulls are woefully short on the bench these days. Antonio Blakeney got off to a fast start this season, but he’s been struggling with his shot recently, and the Bulls managed only 15 bench points against the Timberwolves, with Cameron Payne, Shaq Harrison and Cris Felicio (only one minute played) going scoreless. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the reserve group figures to go from a weakness to a strength once Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis return from injuries, moving Jabari Parker and Ryan Arcidiacono to the second unit with Portis getting extended minutes at backup center.

Monday’s game against San Antonio will be NBC Sports Chicago’s second Authentic Fan Night of the season at the United Center with special in-arena promotions. Stacey King will join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and myself for Bulls Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m., with the opening tip just after 7 p.m. After the final buzzer, stay tuned for Fred Hoiberg’s media session and player reaction from the locker room on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders.

We hope to see you Monday in the United Center Atrium.



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