The Bulls and the Miami Heat close the book on a mini-two-game series as well as the 2020-21 season series this evening at AmericanAirlines Arena. Tonight's contest is also the second of a three-game road trip for Chicago, as afterwards the Bulls head to New York City to meet up with the sizzling hot Knicks (winners of nine straight) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday before returning home to face Milwaukee at the United Center on Friday.
Including tonight's contest there are only a dozen regular season games remaining on Chicago's calendar. The Bulls are currently two games back of Washington for 10th in the East, a position that grants the owner at the end of the season in invite to the NBA's play in tournament and a chance to compete in the playoffs. The Bulls hold the tie-breaker over the Wizards if the two finish with the same record. If they can catch DC, it would be the Bulls first playoff appearance since 2017.
Miami got off to a fiery start this past Saturday, running out to a 33-18 lead over Chicago after one quarter. Heat guard Duncan Robinson was on fire, hitting 4 of 6 from downtown to lead the way with a dozen points. Miami center, Bam Adebayo, known primarily for cleaning the glass and swatting shots at the rim, tapped into the spirit of Magic Johnson, as the 6'9 pivot dished 5 dimes in the opening stanza to help stoke the Heat's offense.
At one point in the second quarter Miami held a 24-point lead as the Bulls seemingly could do very little right. However, Chicago was able to shave some of the lead down, ending the half trailing, 61-41.
Chicago got to the free throw line only once in the opening half, and that was courtesy of a technical foul being called against the Heat for illegal defense. Thankfully, the Bulls hit the free throw, but Miami got to the line 11 times in the first 24 minutes and converted on every single one.
The tables turned somewhat at the start of the second half, as suddenly the Heat cooled off, scoring only 22 points in the first 15 minutes after halftime, allowing the Bulls to get back in the game, even pulling within three with seven minutes left thanks to a 21-7 run orchestrated by point guard Coby White and center Nikola Vučević.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the Heat were able to find its groove again down the stretch to hold off the Bulls, 106-101, assuring them the season series for the fourth straight year. The first time the two teams tipped-off against one another occurred March 12th in Chicago, with Miami winning, 101-90. Jimmy Butler led the Heat in scoring with 28 while Zach LaVine posted a game-high 30 for Chicago in vain.
All-in-all on Saturday, Robinson hit seven treys on the night and led the Heat with 23 points, while Chicago native Kendrick Nunn backed him up with 22. Adebayo recorded a unique double-double for a center with 20 points and 10 assists, while Butler added another 20 points for Miami.
White finished with a game-high 31 points for Chicago, and Nikola Vučević notched 26 points and 14 rebounds. The Bulls outscored the Heat 60-45 in the second half but still wound up holding the short stick at the end of the night.
As for tonight's battle, Chicago's prime task is to shut down the paint as much as humanly possible, while also aggressively contesting every long distance attempted shot from behind the arc.
For most of the year the Bulls have dwelled near the bottom of the league in protecting the rim and keeping opponents out of the paint. Foes have generally met little resistance when attacking Chicago's basket. The Bulls rank 27th in allowing 49.8 points a game scored in the paint. Outside of Butler and Adebayo, Miami doesn't often light up the scoreboard down low (they rank 25th with an average of 43.7 paint points). However, they are capable of making a major impact at the iron if given an open invitation to drive to the cup.
As he did during six seasons with the Bulls, Butler thrives at drawing contact and making his way to the free throw line. This season he's getting to the charity stripe 7.9 times a game and scoring 85.7% of the time.
Adebayo is enjoying his best season at 19.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, shooting 56.6% from the floor. He gets to the line 5.7 times and makes 80.3%. He isn't an outside scoring threat, but he also shouldn't be left alone.
One guy who definitely can't be left alone is Duncan Robinson. The seven three-balls he knocked home Saturday should prove that fact. The third-year, 6'7" wing out of Michigan is an undrafted diamond find for Miami. He's logging over 32 minutes and hitting 40.5% from behind the arc. If the Bulls are going to give themselves any shot of taking this game, they can't afford to lose Robinson on the bend at any time this evening.
Defensively, Butler and Adebayo anchor the Heat's defense, as Miami ranks No. 1 in holding opponents to just 40.5 points in the paint.
As a united group, Chicago needs to come out every game donning a feisty attitude and play with a sharp edge. They must convey a message that if anyone even thinks about driving the ball to the rim against them, it won't be an enjoyable experience.
An additional key for the Bulls each game is to command the boards at both ends of the floor. It's essential to drive opponents away from the basket in order to deny them opportunities to bag points in transition.
Offensively, the Bulls must be unselfish by constantly passing the ball from player-to-player and skipping it from side-to-side. Free-flowing movement places a great deal of pressure on defenses, and if both ball and player movement prove relentless enough, defenses will frequently crack and break. Fluid ball movement also makes it easier to locate open paths to the basket and opportunities to finish at the rim with high percentage shots. Lastly, it also keeps everyone in the flow of the game.
Nikola Vučević's addition has allowed Chicago to adjust its offensive scheme at the beginning of every night. The Bulls now look to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often as he's one of the NBA's most efficient scorers.
Besides a velvet touch at the rim, Vučević can also slide behind the three-point arc and knock down big shots from deep. He's currently shooting 41.3% from distance, placing him in the top 15 in the league.
Vučević's skillset also makes it impractical for opposing pivots to root themselves under the basket. Once he steps outside and hits from the arc, his defender has to leave the paint to shadow him up top. That will make it easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.
All in all, for Chicago to succeed they have to play aggressively and maintain that mentality throughout the night. The Bulls have to demonstrate a serious commitment to do whatever it takes to win. If they do, they'll give themselves an opportunity to come out on top more often than not.