Keys to the Game: Bulls at 76ers (04.06.17)

Here they come spinning out of the turn …     

With just four games left to play this season and a possible playoff berth in sight, the Chicago Bulls (38-40), to put it mildly, can no longer afford to let golden opportunities slip through their fingers.

After sleepwalking through a 100-91 loss to the woeful New York Knicks (Yes, woeful! When your won-loss record coming into a game is 29-48, and you only have nine players available, you’re woeful) the other night at Madison Square Garden, Chicago finds itself in the City of Brotherly Love this evening set to take on yet another also-ran in the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers (28-50).

Despite All-Star Jimmy Butler’s 36-point, 11-assist and seven rebound effort, the up-and-down Windy City West Siders inexplicably laid an egg at home the last time these two teams met at the United Center last week, where Chicago’s 12-game win streak over the Sixers was snapped.

With recent top picks Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jahlil Okafor all sidelined with injuries, 30-year old veteran point guard Sergio Rodriguez jumped behind the wheel and directed the Sixers to a 35-18 advantage during the second quarter to take command of the game. The crafty Spaniard played the entire second stanza and scored nine points and handed out six dimes during that stretch, as Philly spun a four-point deficit after the opening quarter into a 13-point lead at the half.

Rookie forward, Dario Saric (shah-RICH), posted a career-high 32 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, while fellow Philly freshman, Shawn Long, came off the bench to add 18 points and seven rebounds in just his ninth NBA game. By the end of the evening Rodriguez ended up with 12 points and seven assists, while his backcourt partner, Gerald Henderson, followed his lead by chipping in 14 points to pave the way to a 117-107 upset of the Bulls.

Philadelphia shot a blistering 55.4% from the field overall and held Chicago to just 40.7%. The Sixers also commanded the boards and the paint, outrebounding the Bulls 46-39, and outscoring them down low, 70-30.

“For us to come out and play with that type of effort at this time of the year is maddening,” Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg declared afterwards. And if you’re a Chicago fan, you would have to believe that no truer words have ever been spoken.

Without a doubt, the Bulls cannot afford a repeat performance this evening, especially if they intend to make the playoffs. However, from the sound of things the chances of a reoccurrence seems to be fairly remote.

Why’s is that, you ask?

Well, as of this writing five different 76ers have already been declared out for the season due to injury, not including Rodriguez who is expected to miss tonight with a sore left hamstring. The young Mr. Saric is also hurt at the moment. The 6’10 power forward says he will attempt to play tonight but he might not be able to last long thanks to a painful case of plantar fasciitis.

Chicago is also dealing with a couple of ailments, as starting point guard Rajon Rondo will miss tonight’s game with a sore wrist and Dwyane Wade continues to recover from a slightly fractured right elbow.

In any event, on paper, the Bulls are overwhelming favorites to win tonight’s contest, but paper victories are meaningless — it’s what happens on the hardwood that counts, and for Chicago to take a step forward towards securing a postseason berth, they’re going to have to show up to work with a great deal of focus, poise and discipline.

Generally a good indication as to how well the Bulls are going to play on any given night is how hard they crash the boards and look to speed up the pace.

Currently Chicago is the 3rd best team in the league in the overall rebounding, gathering 45.8 caroms per night. However, when it comes to cleaning the offensive glass, The Bulls sit comfortably on top of the mountain, grabbing an NBA-best mark of 12.3 per game, which is a major reason why they also lead the league in second-chance scoring (15.3) this season.

Chicago has proven time and again that they are tough to beat when they sport a hardnosed mindset by aggressively rebounding the ball and consistently look to run it up the floor while keeping everyone engaged and involved in the action. When those three things occur, the Chicago Bulls can light up the scoreboard.

For example, Chicago is 30-18 this season when they snag the most rebounds, 22-7 when they dish the most assists, and 20-12 when they score more points in transition. In this vein, a quick tempo oftentimes helps the Bulls shoot a higher percentage from the field.

Once again the proof is in the pudding, as so far this season Chicago has gone 23-4 whenever they shoot a higher percentage than their opponents, including 10-1 when they hit 50.0% or better as a team, and 31-13 when they reach or surpass the century mark in points scored.

In 38 victories, Chicago has averaged 108.5 points while giving up just 97.7. The Bulls have also shot a very respectable 45.5% from the field and 36.7% from distance while seizing 48.6 rebounds and doling 24.1 assists. However, when the pace slows or grinds to a halt, the Bulls have had trouble, averaging just 96.7 points while allowing 108.6. They also have shot a pretty lousy 42.2% from the field and an even worse 30.7% from beyond the arc. They aren’t as active on the glass, either, pulling down 42.9 rebounds and dishing a very mediocre 20.8 assists.

Besides grabbing a missed shot off the defensive board and hightailing to the other end of the floor, for the Bulls’ offense to flow smoothly they also need to spread shooters around the arc in order to force defenses to leave the paint and open the door for attacks at the rim.

As a team, Chicago has done a fantastic job of getting to the free throw line. They’ve attempted a total of 1,777 charity tosses and connected on 1,413 of them, while opponents have pitched just 1,475 free throws (+302 in favor of the Bulls), and have connected 1,135 times (+278 also in favor of Chicago).

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has taken his game to another level by habitually attacking the basket and making his way to the charity stripe. Butler ranks 4th in the NBA in free throw attempts (9.0) and 4th in free throws made (7.7) per game. He’s also scoring a career-high 23.9 points per game while also shooting a career-best 86.1% from the line.

In short, Chicago’s mission this evening is to come out fast and be forceful at both ends of the floor. It’s important that they take control of the boards from the very beginning and stay on the attack all night long.

With so few games left and the playoffs in reach, the Bulls can’t take anything for granted. If they fail to snatch a rebound, it’s important the Bulls hustle back defensively, otherwise Philadelphia could take command of tonight’s game. The Bulls also need to be quick, decisive and aggressive, especially down low in the paint.

—    Anthony Hyde