Keys to the Game: Bulls at 76ers (10.18.18)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls tip-off their 53rd season with a visit to the City of Brotherly Love to take on the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers opened the 2018-19 campaign Tuesday night in Boston, falling to the Celtics 105-87 despite holding Gang Green to only 43 percent (42 of 97) from the field and 30-percent from beyond the arc (11 of 37). Philly also owned the paint, outscoring Boston 50-34 down low, yet they still came up 18-points short in the end, as Boston’s bench outpaced the Sixers backups 44-26.

In what was a fairly tight contest at the half (47-42, Boston), the Celtics stormed out of the blocks to open the 3rd quarter, reeling-off 14-5 run to gain extra breathing room and eventually coast to the Opening Night victory. Philadelphia was led by All-Star center Joel Embiid’s 23 points and 10 rebounds, while last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons posted 19 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks.

Chicago tips off the new season as the second-youngest crew in the NBA with an average age of 24.5. In fact, the Bulls’ roster boasts 13 players who still haven’t reached their 25th birthday. No other team in the league has more than 11.

The Bulls five game preseason slate proved to be a bit bumpy, with the team losing last year’s First Team All-Rookie forward Lauri Markkanen early in training camp to a sprained elbow (an injury that will keep him out of action until at least late November), and sharpshooting swingman Denzel Valentine with an ankle injury. However there were some positives, as the Bulls led the NBA in free throw shooting (.813) and ended up fifth in defensive rebounding (40.4) and eighth on the glass overall (48.6). Zach LaVine led Chicago in scoring with an average of 17.8 points while shooting 52 percent from the field and 44-percent from downtown in just over 22 minutes per night. Fourth-year forward/center Bobby Portis also enjoyed a strong preseason, notching 17 points and snaring almost six rebounds in 22 minutes.

Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg plans on taking the floor to open the game with Kris Dunn at point guard, LaVine at shooting guard, veteran Justin Holiday at small forward, with Portis at power forward and 19-year old rookie Wendell Carter Jr. in the middle. Free agent signee Jabari Parker and returning veteran center Robin Lopez will be the first two off the bench. Hoiberg experimented with this lineup during the final two preseason games and the team responded with a couple of impressive efforts, bolstering the depth of both the starting lineup and the second unit with Parker taking on the role of a point forward.

The Sixers are likely to counter with a starting backcourt of Simmons and second year guard Markelle Fultz, with Embiid in the middle, flanked by veterans Dario Saric and Robert Covington in the frontcourt. Savvy veteran sniper JJ Redick will most likely be the first Sixer off the pine. Redick has one of the league’s quickest triggers, and if left unattended can be one of the NBA’s deadliest long distance shooters. Against Boston the other night he logged 30 minutes off the bench, launching 17 shots overall, eight from downtown, in scoring 16 points. A major defensive key for the Bulls will be to make sure Redick is within an arm’s reach at all times. If he’s able to shake his defender or the Bulls are slow to rotate over and fail to get a hand up in his face, the former Duke Blue Devil can flat out torch the nets and make life miserable.

For the most part Philly likes to play a very unselfish game, with a lot of ball movement and slashing and cutting through the paint. Defensively Chicago will face a tough challenge, but not an impossible one. A major key for the Bulls will be to keep the lines of communication open and free flowing. Chicago plans to employ a switching defense, as players are supposed to swap defensive assignments on a moment’s notice. In order to succeed, the defense must communicate with one another, keeping everyone on the same page.

Philadelphia also loves to fire away from beyond the arc. Only Simmons and Fultz aren’t adept at launching behind the bend. Both of those players will always look to get to the rim by driving through the paint. Against Boston the other night Simmons scored all seven of his field goals inside the key with dunks, turnaround hooks and floaters. He also drew plenty of contact and was able to get to the charity stripe for 11 free throw attempts.

Embiid will also look to play power ball under the basket, although he is capable to knocking down a shot or two from far away. Carter and Lopez will certainly have their hands full attempting to slow him down, thus a strong defensive team effort from every other Bull on the floor will be needed to help counter Embiid’s effectiveness.

Offensively for the Bulls they’ll have to spread out, stationing shooters all along the 3-point arc in order to draw Philly’s defense away from the basket. It is also important Chicago freely share the ball with each other, getting and keeping all five players involved in the action. Another important key is to stay calm whenever Philly’s defense looks to up the ante by getting physical. The Bulls can’t afford lose control of their emotions. Rather they need to stay focused on the task at hand. For Chicago’s offense to run smoothly the ball has to hop from player-to-player, jumping from one side of the floor to the other, which in turn will force the Sixers to expend extra energy.

The Bulls will also have to seize every opportunity that presents itself to drive the ball deep into the paint to create confusion for the defense, with everyone continuously darting in-and-out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc.