Keys to the Game: Bulls at Heat (11.01.17)

Tonight the Bulls (1-4) get together with the Miami Heat (2-4) in South Florida in the first of four clashes set for this season. Both Chicago and Miami hit the hardwood looking to get back on track after losing their last time out, the Bulls at home to OKC Saturday and the Heat also at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday.

Although Miami has started the season slowly, they are very capable of righting their ship tonight. Miami’s roster is fairly young, yet deeply talented and athletic. Many expect to see them in the playoffs come spring.

The Heat’s starting backcourt of Goran Dragic (19.8 ppg) and Dion Waiters (16.5 ppg) can oftentimes take over at a moment’s notice. So far this season Dragic has been on fire at the start of games, shooting 20 for 29 (69 percent) from the field in first quarters, while Waiters, whose shooting range is boundless, exploded against the Timberwolves the other night, posting 21 points alone in the fourth quarter and overtime, and 33 for the game. Miami’s starting frontcourt of forwards Josh Richardson and former Bulls first round pick James Johnson are also formidable. Both can suffocate opponents defensively as well as provide plenty of jaw-dropping slam-dunk highlights at the other end of the floor.

Another matchup nightmare is Miami’s primary big man in the middle, 7’0” 265-pound center Hassan Whiteside, who, as of this writing is listed as a gametime decision with a nagging left knee contusion suffered late during the first game of the season — a contest in which he put up 26 points and grabbed 22 rebounds against Orlando back on October 18. However, Whiteside’s backups are no picnic in the park. Rookie Bam Adebayo posted his first double-double by scoring 13 points and pulling down 13 rebounds – 10 offensive, while veteran free agent signee Kelly Olynyk logged 29 minutes and notched 23 points and 6 rebounds against the Timberwolves the other night.

Offensively Miami posts most of its points in the paint. In fact the Heat rank 3rd in the NBA in this category with a mark of 48 percent. Thus a key for the Bulls will be to force Miami to stay on the perimeter this evening.

Waiters, who certainly isn’t shy about launching jumpers from beyond the arc (he’s averaging 5.7 3FGA, yet shooting only 25.5%), would much rather blow by a defender to get to the rim. So far this season Waiters has scored 54.5% of his points at the iron. The same goes for Johnson (66.7% of his scores also come from close range). Thus defensively the Bulls will have to do a great job of communicating and stay tied together as a unit in order to deny opportunities for easy scores down low. Chicago must also keep its poise throughout the night and refuse to back down from physical play, as the Heat will most certainly look to mix it up.

Offensively the Bulls have been at their most effective when they aggressively push the ball up the floor, passing it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, keeping everyone involved in the action. The guards can’t hold onto the ball or allow themselves to fall into a trap of trying to beat defenders one-on-one every trip down the floor. For the offense to click, the ball must hop freely and crisply, finding its way into everyone’s hands in search of the open shot. On that note the ball also needs to find its way to Lauri Markkanen more often than it has the last couple of games. The 7’0” rookie is shooting an impressive 42% from distance and averaging 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds heading into tonight’s game.

Overall, the Bulls need to spread the floor yet at the same time relentlessly eye opportunities to attack the rim in hopes of forcing Miami’s defense to scramble and foul. Point guards Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant and Kay Felder need to set their collective minds to attack-mode, seizing any opportunity to drive the ball deep into the paint in order to create their own version of chaos.

In short, the Bulls need to come out of the gates fast and play strong at both ends of the floor. At no time can they slow the pace of the game. They need to share the ball, while at the same time take good care of it by not turning it over with sloppy, lazy or careless passes. Whiteside or no Whiteside, Chicago also needs to win the battle of boards and establish control defensively. The Bulls simply cannot allow Miami free reign to roam the paint nor can they permit the Heat to steadily run out on the break for easy scores.