All-Star hopefuls Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal face off as Bulls host Wizards

Rob Schaefer

Wizards' last five games (3-2)

  • Jan. 12 - L vs. Jazz: 127-116

  • Jan. 10 - W vs. Hawks: 111-101

  • Jan. 8 - L at Magic: 123-89

  • Jan. 6 - W vs. Celtics: 99-94

  • Jan. 4 - W vs. Nuggets: 128-114

Storyline(s) to watch

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The Wizards (13-26) remain one of the more random, yet entertaining groups in the league. They still own a high-powered offense, rated ninth in the NBA, a sluggish defense, rated dead last by almost a full point per 100 possessions, but from the ever-excellent Bradley Beal to the insurgent Davis Bertans, to the resurgent Isaiah Thomas, they're apt to shock anyone on a nightly basis. Just over a week ago, they logged successive victories over the Nuggets and Celtics without Beal; tonight, they trot into Chicago on two days rest, good news for a team that's at its best running and gunning.

In the Wiz is a good test for a Bulls (14-27) defense, slipping. Since Dec. 30 - a stretch that's seen the Bulls drop seven of eight games - their defensive rating of 115.6 ranks 26th in the NBA, and their season-long rating has slid from third to ninth. The competition ramped up, Wendell Carter Jr. went down and, inevitably, the fissures are beginning to show. We're likely not in for a ride as wild as these teams' last meetup on Dec. 18, when the Bulls erased an 18-point fourth quarter deficit and stole an overtime win in D.C., but a victory of any variety would be welcome for the Bulls.

Player to watch: Bradley Beal

If your ‘Zach LaVine All-Star watch' radar is on high alert, Beal is a guy to track every night, but especially in a head-to-head matchup. 

Beal is one game returned from a leg injury that caused him to miss five of the Wizards' first six contests of the month, and in that game - an 11-point loss to the Jazz - he scored 25 points on 11-for-25 shooting (0-for-7 from 3). LaVine's torrid tear since the start of December was somewhat quelled by an 8-for-21 shooting night against Detroit on Saturday, but he bounced back in Boston to the tune of 30 points on 9-for-18 (3-for-6 from deep), albeit in defeat. 

When these two squared off back in December, neither had particularly impressive scoring outings - Beal netting 22 points on 4-for-19 and LaVine 24 on 6-for-23 - but LaVine won the stretch run with a personal 8-2 run to cap a miraculous Bulls comeback in regulation. He also, remember, dished out the game-winning assist in OT to Wendell Carter Jr., one of LaVine's five dimes on the night. 

In terms of the All-Star discussion, Beal's dizzying 27.7 points per game mark for the season (fifth in the NBA) and two prior All-Star berths probably give him an edge over LaVine for the time being, especially with each of their teams mired well under .500. With both likely to float amongst the reserve pool for coaches and media to sift through, anything is possible come February, but as for tonight, two of the best scoring guards in the league duking it out remains great theater, regardless.

Matchup to watch: Lauri Markkanen vs. Wizards froncourt

The aforementioned Dec. 18 matchup saw Lauri Markkanen posit his second-best performance of the season. In the win, he scored 31 points on 19 shots, snared nine rebounds and canned five of 10 3-point attempts, shouldering the offensive load for much of the game with LaVine enduring an off-night. 

On a related note: Amidst a litany of putrid defensive numbers for the Wizards this season, issues on the interior stand out. Washington allows opponents 52.1 points in the paint per game (27th in the NBA), blocks only 4.2 shots per contest (26th) and collects just 42.5 rebounds per game (29th). Their established frontcourt rotation of Ian Mahimni, Davis Bertans and Anzejs Paseczniks is as porous as they come.

Even with Thomas Bryant back in a limited capacity for the Wiz, the shorthanded Bulls should be able to take advantage. It will be especially important for Markkanen to do so - his regression to this point this season has become eyebrow-raising. Draining his open ones, running the floor and assertively attacking closeouts will be his recipe for success, as on most nights.

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All-Star hopefuls Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal face off as Bulls host Wizards originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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