Keys to the Game: Bulls at Clippers (01.10.21)

The Bulls close out a four-game West Coast swing with a second and final visit to the famed Staples Center in Los Angeles this afternoon, this time to take on the Clippers. Friday night the Bulls fell, 117-115, to the defending NBA Champion LA Lakers in this same building.

The Bulls and Clippers will meet a second, and final time next month back in Chicago on February 12th at 7:00 p.m. But as for today, fans can catch this afternoon's matinee on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670) beginning at 3:00 PM.

Due to the global pandemic that struck in early March 2020, the Bulls and the Clippers were only able to meet one-time last season. The game took place at the United Center where the Bulls rallied from five points down with less than two minutes left to play to win, 109-106. Zach LaVine converted a 3-point play with just two seconds left on the clock to seal the victory. LaVine posted a game-high 31 points, followed by Thaddeus Young with 17, and Denzel Valentine with 16, both off the bench. Lauri Markkanen also recorded a double-double of 13 points and 17 rebounds.

The Clippers leading man that night turned out to be Montrezl Harrell, who came off LA's bench to score a team-high 30 points and grab a team-best seven rebounds. Paul George also had a big night with 27 points and six assists, however All-Star Kawhi Leonard sat out the game with left knee soreness. Clippers super-sub, Lou Williams, also missed the game with a right calf strain.

Well, Harrell has moved down the hall after signing with the Lakers as a free agent during the offseason, but George, Leonard and Williams are back, and as of this writing, are expected to play against the Bulls today.

Chicago, on the other hand, will have to play shorthanded again as Markkanen, along with Tomas Satoransky, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison had to be left home at the start of this four-game West Coast road trip due to league health and safety protocols. There is also a chance Otto Porter Jr. might have to sit this afternoon as well, due to a case of back spasms that hit him after playing just six minutes against the Lakers on Friday night. If Porter can't answer the bell, most likely veteran forward Thaddeus Young will take his place in the starting lineup, but Young's promotion will thin out Chicago's bench to an extent. In any event, there is some hope Markkanen and Arcidiacono might be able to rejoin the team Tuesday when the Bulls host Boston at the United Center.

Chicago comes into today's game ranked 3rd in the league in Pace at 105.0, and 7th in scoring at 115.0 per game, while the Clippers sit near the bottom in Pace at 97.3 (29th) and scoring at 110.0 (19th) points per game.

Pace is an advanced metric statistic that measures the number of possessions a team gets in a 48-minute game. The more possessions, the more opportunities to score. Thus, if Chicago is going to close out this four-game Western swing at 2-2 by defeating the Clippers, they'll need to take command of the boards to give themselves extra possessions, and also play fast, getting into transition as often as possible.

A primary key for Chicago this afternoon will be how well they're able to keep turnovers in check while at the same time liberally share the ball with one another. The Bulls have had a rough time so far this season in keeping turnovers in check, as they come into today ranked 28th out of 30 teams with an average of 17.3 per game. The Clippers, on the other hand, have been far better at taking care of the ball, committing just 14.9 miscues. If Chicago can cut their fumbles down to a more reasonable number (13-14), that should go a long way to slowing the Clippers attack.

For Chicago's offense to run smoothly, the ball must skip freely from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Quick passing will free up driving lanes through the paint and generate uncontested looks at the basket from the perimeter. The Bulls cannot afford to stand around and watch one player attempt to take on LA's defense by himself. There must be constant movement – both ball and player, in and out of the paint – to produce an effective, free-flowing offensive rhythm.

Thus, in order for the Bulls to get on a winning track, they'll have to come out focused and energized from the moment the ball is tipped-off until the final horn blares to end the game. Chicago must come up with a hardnosed effort on the glass, as well as take command of the paint.

The Bulls' starting backcourt of Coby White and Zach LaVine have been carrying most of the offensive load this season. Against Sacramento on Wednesday, White went off for a career-best 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting (.652), and also handed out seven assists while committing zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Against the Lakers on Friday, LaVine posted a game-high 38 points and grabbed five rebounds and dished six assists.

Over Chicago's last five games, White and LaVine's numbers are nothing short of impressive. White is averaging 21.2 points, shooting .514 from the field and .341 from behind the arc, while also grabbing 5.4 rebounds and handing out 4.8 assists. LaVine's numbers over the same period are spectacular, as he's averaging 28.6 points, shooting .493 from the field and pulling down 5.6 rebounds and dishing 5.0 assists.

In order to come out on top this afternoon, Chicago, as a team, must continue striving to command the boards, and work equally hard at controlling the paint. The Bulls need to attack the basket at every opportunity and look to make their way to the line to post easy scores from the charity stripe. The Clippers are one of the league's most talented teams, however after starting the season winning four of their first five, they've come back down to earth a bit by going 2-3 since. Chicago has played really well on this trip despite dropping two of their last three. A bounce here and an extra rebound there could have led to two victories instead of a couple of hard-fought four and two-point losses.