Keys to the Game: Bulls at Cavaliers (04.21.21)

The Chicago Bulls visit Cleveland this evening to take on the Cavaliers for the third and final time this season. The teams split the previous two matchups, both played in Chicago.

In the first meeting, Cleveland came away with a 103-94 victory thanks to second-year pro, Darius Garland, who led their assault with 22 points and nine assists. Cavs center Jarrett Allen also posted 19 points and nine rebounds as part of a balanced Cleveland attack. Cavs leading scorer, Collin Sexton, didn't play because of injury, but veteran forward Larry Nance Jr. did, contributing 14 points and pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds for the victorious visitors.

Zach LaVine led Chicago with 22 points, scoring 18 in the opening half behind 6-of-8 shooting, including four 3-pointers. The second half of the game was a different story, as LaVine didn't hit another shot until late in the game, as he was held to just 2-of-12.

Chicago's Lauri Markkanen also started fast with 13 points in the first half before cooling off, finishing with 17 on the night, while guards Coby White and Tomáš Satoranský each chipped in 11 points.

In the second get together last Saturday at the UC, newly acquired Bulls center Nikola Vučević scored 25 points, while Markkanen added 16 off the bench as Chicago took down Cleveland, 106-96, snapping a five-game losing streak.

Denzel Valentine also added 13 points off the bench as the Bulls' reserves accounted for 45 points. Chicago was playing its second straight game without All-Star Zach LaVine, who was not with the team due to the NBA's health and safety protocols. It's expected LaVine won't be able to return for a couple of weeks, so the Bulls will need to continue to find ways to survive without him.

On Monday in Boston, Chicago did just that, upsetting the Celtics on their home floor, 102-96. It marked the first time the Bulls had held back-to-back opponents to under 100 points since 2018.

Once again, Vučević delivered in a big way with a game-high 29 points and team-best nine rebounds. Coby White provided plenty of punch as the starting point guard with 19 points and seven assists. The victory was Chicago's second in a row, and it snapped a six-game winning streak for Boston.

The Bulls missed their first five shots of the game, digging themselves a hole. At one point in the second quarter the Celtics had jumped to a 12-point lead, but the Bulls refused to wave a white flag and continued to grind away. The turning point occurred in the third quarter as Chicago played stoutly at both ends of the floor, closing the frame on a 24-10 run to take a 74-66 lead into the final 12 minutes of action.

Boston didn't back down either, as they fought to stay close, and on a Jaylen Brown 3-pointer, the Celtics knotted the score at 90 with 3:25 remaining. But Chicago pushed back, scoring the next six points to lead 96-90, taking advantage of a pair of Celtics' empty possessions. For the most part, the rest of the game became a free throw shooting contest with White calmly sinking toss after toss to wrap up the win for Chicago.

All-Star Jaylen Brown had 23 points to lead Boston, while fellow All-Star Jayson Tatum posted the first triple-double of his career with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, however, collectively Chicago made it a tough night for Tatum to operate freely as he was just 3-of-17 from the field.

Chicago's central task this evening will be to tighten up defensively near the basket, as the Bulls have been one of the NBA's weakest guardians of the paint. Chicago's opponents this year have averaged a whopping 50.1 points down low. However, against Cleveland the other night, the Bulls did a solid job of holding the Cavs to 42 points in the paint, 10.4 less than what Cleveland averages per game.

In order for the Bulls to stay on a winning track this evening, the team needs to communicate and recognize when to help each other in closing down paths to the hoop. As a united force, Chicago must take the floor with a feisty attitude, and never shy from playing physical. They need to consistently send a message that if anyone even thinks about taking the ball to the rim against them, that person is going to end up on the floor with a new bruise or two.

Also, as a team, the Bulls need to command the boards at both ends of the floor, forcing every opponent to work far from the hoop, denying opportunities to pile up points in transition as well as easy put-backs of missed shots.

On offense, Chicago must continue to be unselfish, passing the ball from player-to-player and continuously skipping it from side-to-side. Persistent ball and player movement puts heavy pressure on the defense to react, and if both ball and player movement never relents, the defense oftentimes will breakdown. Free-flowing ball movement also makes it easier to attack the basket and finish at the rim with high percentage shots. It also keeps everyone active in the flow of the game.

Vučević's addition has allowed the Bulls to adjust its offensive scheme for the better by getting the ball into his hands under the basket early and often at the start of games. Vučević is one of the league's best and most efficient scorers. Besides owning a soft touch near the rim, he's also adept of stepping behind the three-point arc and effortlessly knocking down shots. He's currently shooting 41.9% from behind the arc, placing him in the top 15 in the league.

Vučević's skillset also makes it hard for opposing centers to stay anchored under the basket to protect the rim. Once he steps away and hits a shot from deep, his defender is obliged to abandon the paint to guard him. That makes life a lot easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to operate and find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.

All in all, the Bulls have been a very unselfish team. After handing out 34 assists against Memphis on Friday, they dished 30 against the Cavs on Saturday. It was the second time this season Chicago totaled 30+ helpers in back-to-back games. Against Boston on Monday, the Bulls posted another 30 assists on 41 made shots, making it the 15th time this season they achieved 30+ dimes in a game. Currently, the Bulls rank 6th in the league with an average of 26.8 assists.

In short, for Chicago to be successful they have to be aggressive and keep that mindset alive throughout the night. The Bulls must always look to outhustle and outwork opponents. They need to do whatever it takes and be willing to fight through screens, go all out after every rebound and dive after every loose ball.

If they do these things, they'll give themselves a great shot of capturing the season series tonight against a longtime rival.