With 15 games to play, the Bulls sit with a magic number of 13 to take the #1 seed and home court against Miami. They look to shrink it tonight when Detroit comes to town. The team appears to face a new challenge, a good challenge, in integrating Rip Hamilton back into the lineup.
Early word is that Hamilton is expected to play but come off the bench in his first game back. Will the Bulls keep him in a bench role or move him to the starting lineup if he proves fully healthy? Bringing back Rip is great for Chicago, but it will present some interesting chemistry changes.
A healthy Rip Hamilton means a minutes crunch for the perimeter rotation. One solution would be to limit Deng's minutes in order to get him more rest and play Brewer/Hamilton at SF some. Any time Jimmy Butler had is almost certainly gone now. It's a good probably for Chicago to have, but I expect an adjustment period. Rip gives them another quality offensive option on a team that's frequently struggled to get good looks.
The classic trap game
It's probably been three seasons since the Pistons beat Chicago, so you know the Bulls aren't looking at them as any type of rival. This is a hammer and nail rivalry right now where the Bulls play the role of the hammer. The Bulls get to play at home [where they're awesome] and completely outclass this Pistons team which likely has ownership hoping for a worse record to get advance in the lottery standings anyway.
On top of the generally crappy play by the Pistons, Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey are both doubtful for the game tonight robbing the team of two of their better scorers and shot creators. It will be a full on youth movement with Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, a bunch of scrubs and old man Prince running the show.
In short, it's a game there's no reason Chicago should lose. However, they have a big matchup on Sunday against Oklahoma City which kicks off perhaps the most difficult stretch of the season where Chicago plays six straight against playoff teams. If the Bulls emerge from that stretch ahead of Miami in the loss column, they're likely heading to the #1 seed.
As such, it's easy to see the team getting distracted, looking ahead, and raising Tom Thibodeau's blood pressure in this game. Also, the energy level on a bad team frequently rises when veterans get hurt. The veterans have already mailed it in while the young guys on the bench are playing for their careers in the NBA in the few minutes they have.
This can create an opponent with far less skill but a caged animal like ferocity. In short, the Bulls should trivially out-talent the Pistons, but they'll have to guard against a lack of focus or effort which could allow Detroit to hang around. Of course, hanging around is probably about the most Pistons fans can hope for.
Keys to the game
Show up like the game isn't already in the bag, and the game will be in the bag. It's really that simple. Home game against a terrible team that's missing a couple of its top options. That focus should reflect in the stat sheet in terms of controlling the glass and limiting turnovers.
If Chicago does those two things everything else should trivially fall into place.