Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Grizzlies (03.15.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (32-35) return home to the United Center to take on the Memphis Grizzlies (37-30) in a game that carries major playoff implications for Chicago.

With just 15 games left to play for both the Bulls and Grizzlies, Memphis looks solidly entrenched as a playoff team. They come in as the 7th seed in the West, seven-and-a-half games ahead of falling out of the playoffs, and just one game behind OKC for 6th, and three back of the LA Clippers for the 5th seed, while Chicago is tied with Miami for 9th in the East, a half-a-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 8th and final playoff spot, one full game behind Detroit for the 7th seed, and two games back of Indiana for 6th.

Both the Bulls and Grizzlies hit the hardwood feeling a little better about themselves this evening as each snapped season-high five-game losing streak Monday, with Chicago swatting the Hornets, 115-109, in Charlotte and Memphis taking care of business at home, mauling Milwaukee, 113-93. For Chicago, Niko Mirotic came off the bench firing, recording a season-high 24 points while also pulling down 11 rebounds to notch his sixth double-double of the season. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade added 23 points apiece while Rajon Rondo chipped in 20 points, six assists and seven rebounds. It was the first time in almost decade Chicago had four players post 20-or-more points in a game. The Bulls also attempted a franchise-record 40 3-pointers, hitting 11 from downtown. Over their last five games, Chicago has averaged 10 made 3s.

As for Memphis, 40-year-old future Hall of Fame swingman Vince Carter was inserted into the Grizzlies starting lineup Monday night and he immediately turned back the clock, shooting a perfect 8-of-8 from the field, including 6-of-6 from distance and 2-of-2 from the free throw line in scoring with 24 points, while Mike Conley recorded a double-double with 20 points and 10 assists, and his backcourt running mate, Tony Allen, posted 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting.

Tonight marks the second and final meeting between these two teams, with Chicago looking to sweep the season series after taking the first contest, 108-104, in Memphis on January 15 in the 15th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game. Butler hit two clutch shots with under a minute left to lift the Bulls. The match featured 16 lead changes and 11 ties, including six lead changes and five ties in the fourth quarter alone. Chicago shot 51.3% from the field, while holding Memphis to just 42.1% shooting. Conley recorded 28 points and eight assists, while big man, Marc Gasol, added 24 points and 11 rebounds for the Grizzlies.

Much like what Memphis did with Carter, Chicago also tweaked its starting lineup, reinserting Rondo as the starting lead guard in Charlotte the other night, and he responded in fine fashion. Chances are Rondo will once again take the floor with the Bulls’ starters again this evening. Chicago hits the hardwood as one of six teams realistically battling for one of three final Eastern Conference playoff seeds, so obviously tonight’s outcome carries a great deal of weight for the Bulls.

In order for Chicago to stay on track they need to consistently do the things they do best, and the first item of business is to crash the boards from the opening tip until the final buzzer blasts throughout the UC a little more than two hours later. Currently the Bulls rank 3rd in the league in rebounding, pulling down 46.1 a game. However, on the offensive glass, they sit in the No. 1 spot, snagging 12.4 shots a night.

So far this season the Bulls are 27-17 whenever they control the glass, thus taking command of the boards should go a long way to coming out on top by the end of the evening.

One of the major benefits of being able to dominate the backboard, especially at the offensive end, is having the opportunity to post easy scores via put-backs and short-range jumpers. Since the Bulls haven’t been a good outside shooting team this season — in fact, they rank 29th out of 30, shooting just 44.0% from the field — they have had to repeatedly flex their rebounding muscles to stay competitive. Clearly they’ve reaped the benefits of doing so as they come into tonight’s contest leading the NBA in second-chance scoring, putting up an impressive 15.3 points a game.

The next order of business for the Bulls is to aggressively push the ball up the floor while at the same time look to attack the rim at every opportunity. So far this season when Chicago plays slow their offense sputters. The ball ceases to hop from player-to-player and move from side-to-side. Instead, it ends up stuck in someone’s hands while everyone on the floor stands around and watches. Far too many one-on-one battles ensue, as turnovers climb and assist numbers and shooting percentages tumble. However, when Chicago speeds up the pace and freely shares the ball with one another, good things have a tendency to happen, as evidenced by their 17-6 record whenever they post the most assists in a game, and 17-11 mark when they post the most fastbreak points. Therefore collectively, the Bulls need to step on the gas. It’s vital they go on the attack, as when they hit the floor sporting an aggressive mindset, opponents frequently have had a very difficult time slowing them down.

Defensively, good communication is a central key to achieving success, as everyone on the court needs to be aware of where the ball is and where their assigned player is going at all times. Poor communication leads to fastbreaks, easy scores and game-changing momentum swings. Mike Conley is one of the league’s top playmakers. He’s very capable of taking advantage of silly mistakes. This season the 10-year wheelman out of Ohio State is enjoying a career-year, averaging 19.9 points while shooting 44.9% from the field and 40.1% from 3, while also handing out 6.2 assists and recording 1.4 steals a night. Keeping Conley in check, not allowing him opportunities to lead the Grizzlies in transition will definitely need to be a high priority.

Another item worthy of serious attention this evening is Chicago’s commitment to hustle back on defense, and their willingness to forcibly shut down lanes to the basket. The Bulls simply can’t afford a rash of mental breakdowns, such as allowing frustrations to take over after missing shots and/or failing to corral a rebound, or forgetting to properly rotate to provide quality help-defense in the paint. Successful teams learn to trust each other — commit to one another. Overall, the Bulls have developed these essential traits, however with only 15 games left to play, every aspect of the game gets magnified. Thus every misunderstanding, every defensive lapse, every possession, every play at either end of the floor counts double.

In short, the Bulls need to come out of the gates fast and hard. They have to look to establish an uncompromising, no-nonsense tone. They have to aggressively attack the rim while also staying poised, focused and determined. If they accomplish most of these objectives they will give themselves a good chance of earning another much needed victory.

—   Anthony Hyde