Keys to the Game: Bulls at Jazz (11.17.16)

Tonight the Bulls (7-4) take on the Utah Jazz (7-5) in Salt Lake City in the second of a six-game, two-week road trip.

Chicago literally stampeded through Portland to open their journey Tuesday, goring the Trail Blazers on their home court, 113-88. Swingman Jimmy Butler led the charge by knocking down 9-of-16 from the field and recording a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line to finish with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists. Dwyane Wade also played a key role in the victory, especially early by helping the Bulls establish an aggressive tone of hardnosed defense, a persistent running out on the break and leading a relentless assault on the basket. The savvy veteran contributed 19 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, while second-year playmaker, Jerian Grant, made his first start of the year, ably stepping in for Rajon Rondo (left ankle sprain) by playing 30 minutes and producing 18 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds and 5 steals.

The Blazers, who had previously won five of six, were ice cold from the start, falling behind by as many as 26 points in the opening quarter. Portland’s All-Star point guard, Damian Lillard, who came in averaging almost 31 points a game, could only hit two shots the entire first half. With Butler, Wade, Grant and frontcourt strongmen Robin Lopez (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Taj Gibson (12 points, 11 rebounds) dominating the paint, the Bulls led 35-14 after one, and 56-37 at halftime. In truth, the game was never in doubt after Chicago’s scorching opening quarter.

Utah comes into this evening’s contest looking to bounce back after losing at home to Memphis, 102-96, Monday night. The Jazz had just gotten back from a terrific East Coast trip where they won four of five, however, they came out flat and fell behind the Grizzlies right away. To be fair, they were a bit shorthanded, as sniper Rodney Hood, who had averaged 17.2 points on the road trip, was out sick and veteran guard George Hill was also sidelined, still mending from a badly sprained thumb. Hood should be back in action tonight, and Hill could be, too, as the former Indiana Pacer is listed as a game-time decision.

In any event, tonight is going to be a tough challenge for the Bulls as the Jazz are a talented and versatile team. All-Star Gordon Hayward (22.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 4.0 APG) is considered Utah’s top offensive player, but defensively is where they produce sweet music. Currently the Jazz rank second in the league in points allowed (93.8) and are 7th in opponent field goal percentage (.439).

Starting center, Rudy Gobert, is a game-changer down low for Utah. The 7’1” Frenchman is averaging a rather modest 9.6 points, but he’s a demon on the boards (10.3 RPG) and he loves to block shots (2.2). Gobert’s capacity to protect the rim and command the paint goes hand-in-hand with Utah’s ability to turn up the defensive heat on the perimeter.

Generally, the Bulls are not a great outside shooting team, but in order to win tonight, Chicago is likely going to have to knock down more than a handful of shots beyond and just inside the arc. The Achilles heel to Gobert’s game is his tendency to get into foul trouble. So if the Bulls can consistently hit from outside — especially early in the game — helping to draw Utah’s defense outside and away from the paint, Butler, Wade, Rondo (if he’s able to play), Grant and any other Chicago ballhandler can attempt to bait Gobert into fouling, and with a little luck, force the shot-swatting giant to the bench.

So far the Bulls have proven tough to beat whenever they aggressively come out of the blocks and play fast. Thus once again they will have to hit the hardwood with a determined mindset. A primary key will be their ability to wrestle control of the boards. Outside of Gobert, Utah is not a good rebounding team. Chicago, on the other hand, leads the league with an average of 49.5 per game, while the Jazz are dead last at 41.2. Chicago is especially stout on the offensive glass, with an NBA-best 14.1 mark.

Overall, the Bulls are out-banging opponents by a whopping 7.6 boards a night, and out-producing them in second-chance points, 182-135, which translates to a very healthy 16.6 average per game.

Offensively, the Bulls click when they push the ball up the floor and keep it hopping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to be truly effective, the ball has to skip freely and not be held for very long. Everyone needs to be active and fully engaged to what’s going on.

As stated earlier, the Bulls are at their best when they go on the attack and force the opposition to foul. As a team, they have done an excellent job of getting to the free throw line and making the opposition pay. The Bulls have outscored opponents at the charity stripe 229-137 and have cashed 20 or more free throws in six of their 11 games. They rank 6th overall in free throw attempts (25.2) and 2nd in free throw shooting (.827).

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is he off to a blistering start to the season, averaging a career-best 24.5 points per game, but he is also tied for 4th in the NBA in made free throws (8.3). Over the Bulls’ last six games, Butler has shot a ridiculous 55-of-60 from the stripe (.917).

In short, Chicago’s chief task this evening is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls have to be tenacious in every phase of the game. They can’t allow themselves to be out-hustled, especially when it comes to rebounding and defense, and also offensive execution.