Keys to the Game: Bulls at Cavaliers (01.04.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (17-18) find themselves in Cleveland taking on the defending NBA World Champion Cavaliers (26-7) in the second of four meetings scheduled between the two longtime Central Division rivals. The Bulls won the first game of the series at home, 111-105, back on December 2nd. Every Chicago starter scored in double-figures led by Jimmy Butler’s 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Dwyane Wade also had a brilliant game, notching 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals, while Taj Gibson ruled down low with a double/double of 23 points and 11 rebounds. LeBron James did what LeBron James always does — dominates — leading all scorers with 27 points while also handing out 13 assists. Cavs All-Star playmaker Kyrie Irving also put forth a terrific effort with 20 points and eight dimes.

Right from the opening tip through the final buzzer Chicago controlled the paint, outrebounding Cleveland 49-33 and outscoring them in the post, 78-60. The Bulls used a strong third quarter, holding the Cavs to just 20 points, to turn a one-point halftime deficit into an 88-80 lead. They then withstood several high-pressure Cleveland runs in the fourth to upset the Champs.

The Cavs enter tonight having won 13 of their last 15 at home and nine in a row at Quicken Loans Arena. Overall, they own the best home record in the league (18-2) and are averaging a whopping 113.8 points on the Q’s hardwood. Chicago, on the other hand, comes in 6-11 on the road and 4-6 against Central Division foes.

So far the Bulls have proven tough to beat whenever they charge out of the blocks and play fast. Therefore, in order to come out on top this evening, especially against such an elite opponent, Chicago will have to be ready to run and sport a gritty mindset from the start.

A primary factor as to whether or not the Bulls will have a good night is how they do on the glass. Chicago currently ranks 1st in the league with an average of 47.7 rebounds per game, while Cleveland is 10th at 44.5. Chicago is also particularly strong when it comes to offensive boarding with an NBA-best 13.7 average, while the Cavs are near the middle of pack (No. 13, 10.2 ORPG). The Bulls are out-banging opponents by an impressive +4.7 rebounds a night, and outhustling them in putting up an NBA-best average of 16.5 second-chance points. Chicago is 16-10 whenever they outrebound an opponent, 15-11 when they outscore them in second-chance points and 12-3 when they hold them to under 100 points.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it hopping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to really click, the ball has to skip freely and not get stuck in anyone’s hands for too long. Every player on the floor needs to be active and fully engaged as to what’s going on. Standing around and watching a teammate go one-on-one just won’t cut it tonight.

Without a doubt, the Bulls are most effective when they spread out to space the floor and look to consistently attack the rim, forcing the opposition to foul. As a team, they have done an excellent job of getting to the free throw line this season, as they’ve outscored their adversaries 682-491 at the stripe coming into tonight.

To break it down further, the Bulls have cashed 20 or more charity tosses 20 times this season which is the most in the NBA. And over their last five games, they are averaging a league-best 24 made free throws per game. It also helps that as a team, the Bulls are one of the best free throws shooters overall at 80.0%.

Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is the two-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist averaging a career-best 25.3 points, but he is 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.5), fourth in free-throw attempts (9.7), and shooting a career-best 88.2% from the line.

In short, Chicago’s primary mission this evening is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and never slow down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, they have to be tenacious in every phase of the game. They need to wrestle control of the boards — both offensive and defensive —and not allow Cleveland opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

Also of vital importance for the Bulls will be to aggressively defend the three-point arc as Cleveland ranks 2nd in the NBA with 431 made threes, 2nd in made threes per game (13.1) and 3rd in overall long distance marksmanship (39.3%). In fact, so far they have hit at least 10 treys in 28 of their 33 games this season. Thus paying close attention and aggressively running shooters off the arc will have to be a top priority for Chicago.

Chicago’s team defense simply can’t afford many mental breakdowns. They can’t lose sight of sight of the ball or forget to rotate to provide hard-hitting help-defense near the rim. Collectively, the Bulls simply cannot allow the Cavs open looks at the basket. Every pass and every shot Cleveland attempts has to be challenged.

Although December was a very rough month for the Bulls (6-11), January began with an impressive 118-111 victory over Charlotte Monday at the UC. As for Cleveland, this is their last evening at home before embarking on a six-game road trip that will crisscross the USA over 13 days. Fans certainly shouldn’t expect it, but they also shouldn’t be too surprised if the Cavs come out a little flat this evening, especially early on. If they do, the Bulls need to take full advantage by having more energy, focus and fire throughout all four quarters (and overtime, if necessary) in order to come away with a victory.

— Anthony Hyde