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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans host surging young Chicago Bulls squad led by Lauri Markkanen

AD and Boogie aim to protect homecourt against a Chicago team exceeding preseason expectations.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now but the Chicago Bulls are making some noise in the East.

The Bulls entered the 2017-18 season as betting favorites to finish with the worst record in basketball. And for the first few weeks of the season, that proclamation seemed to be holding true. On December 6, the Bulls were a woeful 3-20. Since then, the Bulls are on parade and have won 15 of their last 23. Now, maybe at 18-28 the hole is still too steep to climb out of for Chicago, but the Bulls have elevated themselves from bottom feeders to appropriately scrappy, and the Pelicans had best give them their full and undivided attention.

The Bulls don’t quite have any one particular scoring threat that New Orleans should key in on, and that’s kind of the point: the Bulls get their scoring from just about everybody. Seven Chicago Bulls are scoring anywhere between 11 and 17 points a night, and Denzel Valentine is mere decimal points away from making that total eight.

Yet despite this observation, Lauri Markkanen is a guy I’m excited to see on Monday night because of an impressive shot that should only get better with age. Markkanen has exceeded expectations throughout the league with averages of 15 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the floor, nearly 37 from three and right around 85 percent from the line. However, he’s been on a tear since the calendar flipped to 2018 as evidenced by an 18.5 PPG average and a shooting line of 49.6 FG%, 46.4 3PT% and 90.5 FT% here in January.

Zach LaVine’s returned to the court for the Bulls, and it’s clear Chicago is easing him back into the rotation after tearing his ACL last season. Yes, LaVine has started all four games since his return, but he’s barely cracking 20 minutes a night. He’s scoring about 11 points a night, but it’s been done in an inefficient manner. Lavine’s attempting nearly 11 shots a night — remember he’s only playing 20 minutes a game, and is shooting 38 percent from the floor, 35 from three and a middling 70 percent from the free throw line. However, don’t forget that LaVine improved all three seasons in Minnesota and was enjoying his best year as a pro before tearing his ACL. It’s a matter of when, not if for LaVine.

The Pelicans need to keep an eye out for Chicago’s ball movement and not letting them gobble up too many rebounds. The Bulls are a top-10 team in assists and rebounds so New Orleans has to be mindful to not let a bad team gain extra possessions and allow the extra pass to reach the open man.

The Pelicans are without a doubt better than the Bulls. They’ve got Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday — three players all better than any individual Chicago will send out onto the floor. But that team that New Orleans beat in Chicago a few months ago? That’s not the one coming into the Smoothie King Center.

Geaux Pels!

What: New Orleans Pelicans vs Chicago Bulls

Where: Smoothie King Center

When: January 22, 2018, 7:00 p.m. Central

How: FSNO, WRNO 99.5 FM