Keys to the Game: Bulls at Heat (11.10.16)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (4-4) and the Miami Heat (2-4) tip-off for the first of three times this season. This evening’s contest is the only one that’ll be played in South Florida as the Heat will travel to Chicago for a rematch in a month (December 10, 2016), and then again in late January.

Miami is hoping to get back on track after dropping two straight on the road, first in Toronto last Friday, and then in Oklahoma City Monday night. In Miami’s last game, the Thunder got off to quick start, rolling to an 11-point lead after 12 minutes of play. The Heat were able to fight its way back to within four points early in the 3rd quarter, but then OKC All-Star Russell Westbrook took over and led the Thunder on a 20-0 run to put the game away. Ex-Bulls forward, James Johnson, posted a Miami team-high of 18 points in the loss.

An interesting sidebar to tonight’s contest is that it marks the first time future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade returns to Miami as an opponent. Wade was drafted by the Heat with the 5th overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft and went on to play 13 seasons in leading Miami to three titles. However, over the summer, the 6’4” Chicago native opted to return to his hometown as a free agent and play for the Bulls, where he’s enjoying a very fine season (17.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.9 spg while shooting .468 from the field and .429 from distance).

The Bulls come into tonight looking to bounce back in hopes of successfully closing the book on a set of back-to-back contests after losing in Atlanta, 115-107, last night. Jimmy Butler had a monster game for Chicago, scoring season-high 39 points, dishing seven assists and collecting six steals. Wade also had a dynamic night with 25 points and five pick-pockets.

Chicago is in the midst of a very busy stretch, as tonight marks the Bulls’ seventh game over the last 10 days, with a date against the Washington Wizards looming for Saturday at the United Center.

So far the Bulls have proven tough to beat whenever they get out to fast start and hold the opposition to 24 or fewer points in the opening quarter. In their four victories, Chicago has outscored opponents 129-84 in the opening quarter. They have then gone on to average 113.3 points while allowing just 92 points a game. However, in each of the Bulls’ four losses, opponents have turned the tables, outscoring Chicago 134-90 in the first quarter, and have gone on to average 112.5 points per game while Chicago can only muster 101.3.

In order for the Bulls to get back in the win column tonight, they’re going to have to commit to going all out in every way possible. Chicago’s mindset needs to be nasty and hardnosed. Collectively, they have to go on the attack for the entire 48 minutes of the game.

Another major key for the Bulls is their enthusiasm to crash and take command of the boards. Chicago comes into tonight ranking 3rd in the league in overall rebounding (47.1). They have been especially effective on the offensive glass, leading the NBA with an average of 13.6 offensive boards per game. Overall, the Bulls are out-rebounding foes by +7.5 boards.

Offensively, Chicago has to look to push the ball up the floor and keep it bouncing from player-to-player, and side-to-side. With one of the NBA’s top playmakers in Rajon Rondo behind the wheel, it would be a shame for the Bulls to play a slow-paced game by walking the ball up the floor and employing an isolation, one-on-one style. For the Bulls to succeed, the ball cannot get stuck in anyone’s hands. It needs to be freely shared while everyone on the floor continuously moves about, cutting in and out of the paint. No team other than Golden State can simply live outside and launch jumpers all night long. As a group, the Bulls have to attack the rim and force opponents to scramble by expending extra energy on defense.

Overall, Chicago has done a nice job of consistently getting to the free throw line, and then cashing in this season. The Bulls have hit 20+ free throws in five of their first eight games, which has led to outscoring opponents, 164-97, at the charity stripe. In particular, Jimmy Butler has been outstanding in this aspect, leading the team with an average of 8.6 free throw attempts per game, ranking 8th in the league. In total, Butler’s hit 60-of-69 from the stripe for an impressive .870 clip.

The task at hand is for the Bulls is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor this evening. Chicago needs to be fired up from the jump, especially on defense. As a team, the Bulls have to communicate with one another and quickly recognize and execute the proper defensive rotations, especially when Miami looks to play pick-n-roll with point guard Goran Dragic and high-flying big man, Hassan Whiteside. Dragic leads Miami in scoring (18 points) and assists (6.2) while Whiteside is close behind with marks of 17.5 points, to go along with 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. Super-athletic backup guard, Tyler Johnson, is also making a strong impact for the Heat, averaging 14.5 points while shooting .516 overall from the field.

Offensively, the Bulls have to play fast and continue to be unselfish with the ball. They also need to keep crashing the boards and get out on the break at every opportunity. If they do all of these things tonight, they should come away with a well-deserved, and much needed victory.