The Chicago Bulls had numerous reasons to celebrate on Monday at the United Center.
Head coach Billy Donovan’s team ended its three-game losing streak with a 113-99 win over the Toronto Raptors. Second-year forward Patrick Williams looked healthy and comfortable in his return to the lineup. Alex Caruso gave the starting unit a lift, with Donovan making AC a permanent backcourt starter going forward.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, Lonzo Ball hasn’t been part of the journey as of late. He also unintentionally spoiled Chicago’s good mood on Monday.
Ball has been working his way back from a torn meniscus after undergoing surgery in January. Initially, it was believed he had a 6-to-8 week timeline for recovery. However, his knee hasn’t responded to running, which has extended matters.
Bulls fans must prepare for the distinct possibility that Ball is out for the season.
Lonzo Ball’s injury woes continue
Last week, Donovan indicated that a bone bruise served as the primary reason why Ball had yet to progress to sprints. Until he can run at full speed, Zo will not receive clearance.
Now, there’s absolutely no telling when that might happen.
Donovan told reporters before Monday’s game (h/t K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago) that Ball will put a brief stop to his running exercises in an effort to strengthen the injured knee. The Bulls head coach stated that his starting point guard feels discomfort when he attempts to increase speeds during his running program.
Although Donovan indicated this decision to move Ball off running wasn’t a setback, it sure feels like one.
With Ball pausing running for 10 days, he will not play until April, at the earliest. At that point, the Bulls will have just five games remaining, including a back-to-back. Plus, there’s no guarantee the knee responds well after the strengthening, which might endanger Ball’s status for the start of the playoffs and beyond.
It’s tough news for the Bulls to swallow. The timing also proved hapless, as Chicago should have been celebrating one of its best performances in some time.
Latest news puts a damper on the Bulls’ big win over the Raptors
The Bulls rediscovered their identity during Monday’s win over the Raptors.
Chicago took care of the rock, an issue that plagued the offense in previous losses. On the other end, the Bulls scored 29 points off 12 Raptors turnovers. Ayo Dosunmu gave the second unit a lift with 11 points and six assists. Meanwhile, Zach LaVine looked quite explosive getting downhill, scoring 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting to go with six dimes and six rebounds. His 16 third-quarter points gave the Bulls the momentum.
More importantly, Chicago made defensive adjustments. After getting torched in pick-and-roll in the second quarter, Nikola Vucevic found a better balance between showing on screens while staying connected to his assignment. The Bulls’ guards chased Toronto off the three-point line and forced plenty of contested looks.
The win might give Chicago momentum as it prepares for the second leg of a back-to-back on Tuesday in Milwaukee. However, Ball’s stalled recovery efforts are a tough pill to swallow.
Despite Monday’s defensive improvements, the Bulls have typically struggled to guard and force turnovers, even with Alex Caruso back in the lineup. Inserting Ball into the rotation would help tremendously in those areas, as well as his playmaking and catch-and-shoot abilities. Plus, his return would make the team deeper and more versatile, with Javonte Green moving from the starting five to the second unit.
But there’s no telling when or if Ball can really return. The Bulls must prepare for the worst, which means everyone else has to take it up a notch.
Can the Bulls survive if Ball misses time in the playoffs?
The nature of Lonzo Ball’s injury and recovery could prevent him from being ready before the playoffs.
If the Bulls head into the postseason without their starting point guard, can they still make a run in the Eastern Conference? It feels a bit unlikely unless everyone else on the roster brings more quality in a hurry.
LaVine’s third-quarter explosion and attacking mindset as of late — he had 12 free-throw attempts in a loss to the Phoenix Suns despite shooting 1-of-7 from the field — are both inherent positives, given he’s dealt with knee issues. He has to make himself more of a consistent danger, particularly with teams starting to send doubles at DeMar DeRozan. Patrick Williams’ return could play a significant role as he continues to adjust to game speed and feel more natural on the floor.
But the biggest X-factor is probably Vucevic.
The All-Star center has been an unwilling defensive anchor this season. He’s had issues assisting Chicago’s guards on screens and at the point of attack, where guys like Ball and Caruso excel as defenders. Vooch can also be slow laterally on switches, with guards and wings taking him off the dribble and getting right into the lane.
The Bulls must strengthen their team defense on the whole. But it starts with Vucevic making better reads and establishing better positioning.
Chicago might feel much better about its playoff chances had it received more welcoming news regarding Ball’s recovery. But the Bulls have to prepare for life without him, which will demand the very best from the rest of the roster.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.