Keys to the Game: Bulls at Kings (02.06.17)

After two days off, the Chicago Bulls (25-26) hit the hardwood to play the third of a six-game Western Conference road swing, taking on the Sacramento Kings (20-31) in their only trip to the NBA’s newest arena, the Golden 1 Center.

The Bulls last played Friday in Houston, falling 121-117 in overtime to the Rockets. Chicago played without All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler who was pulled from the lineup just 45 minutes before tip-off with an injured heel, and later lost the services of key reserve, Cristiano Felicio, to a calf injury. Butler is listed as a game-time decision for this evening’s contest, while Felicio has already been ruled out of action.

The Sacramento Kings, on the other hand, come in on a high note after bumping-off the Golden State Warriors Saturday, 109-106 in overtime. Recent injuries to key rotation players Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi and Garrett Temple has forced Sacramento to rely more heavily on its bench of late, and the Kings’ backups came through in fine fashion the other night, outscoring Golden State’s reserves, 45-16. Veterans Matt Barnes (11 points, 14 rebounds), Anthony Toliver (11 points, 5 rebounds) and Willie Cauley-Stein (14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals) came off the pine to join forces with superstar center DeMarcus Cousins (32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists) and starting point guard Darren Collison (18 points and three assists) to drive Sacramento to an exciting upset victory.

Tonight is also the second and final time these two teams will meet this season. In a game where neither team enjoyed a double-digit lead, the deciding factor in the first get-together at the United Center three weeks ago came down to Chicago making 12 more free throws (28 to 16) than Sacramento, as the Bulls ultimately prevailed, 102-99. Wade and Butler were a combined 22-of-25 from the line, as Wade led the Bulls with 30 points and snagged two key steals in the final minute to seal the victory. Once again Cousins produced a stellar effort for the Kings with a 42-point, 14-rebound performance.

For the Bulls to come out on top again this evening, Chicago will have to hit the floor with a great deal of focus and energy.

A hint as to how well Chicago is playing on any given night is how hard they crash the boards. The Bulls currently lead the league in rebounding with an average of 47.2 per game, while Sacramento, even with Cousins (28.1 points & 10.6 rebounds) in the middle, sits near the bottom (No. 29) at just 40.8. The Bulls are also the league’s top offensive rebounding team, gathering an impressive 13.0 offensive rebounds, while the Kings rank 23rd with a rather pedestrian 9.2 average.

Since neither Chicago nor Sacramento has proven themselves to be a particularly good perimeter shooting team, with the Kings in the middle of the pack at No. 16 (45.5%) and the Bulls at No. 27 (44.0%), chances are there will be a great deal of opportunities to snare wayward shots this evening, and thus another important facet should favor the Bulls in that they are one the NBA’s best at converting upon second-chance scoring opportunities, checking in at No. 3 overall at 15.6 points per game, while Sacramento is not, ranking 25th with an average of 11.3 second-chance points per night.

Offensively, Chicago kicks into gear whenever they consistently push the pace by running the ball up the floor and keeping it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For the Bulls to have a hearty scoring night, the pace of the game needs to be swift and the ball has to skip freely between everyone and not end up glued onto a single player’s hands for too long. When Chicago shares the ball, the scoreboard tends to light up. For example, over their last three games, the Bulls have scored 121, 128 and 117 points, while handing out 29, 25 and 30 assists, respectively. Thus unselfish ball movement is clearly a key factor in the Bulls’ achieving success.

Another important offensive element that needs to occur if Chicago is to succeed is that they must do a good job of spacing the floor. As mentioned earlier, the Bulls won’t win many jump-shooting contests, but nonetheless, by positioning shooters evenly apart around the three-point arc, defenders will have to move away from the paint, which in turn will offer opportunities for Chicago’s guards to tap into their quickness and aggressively drive the ball to the rim, forcing the defense to react and scramble, and oftentimes foul.

As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of getting to the free throw line this season. Coming into tonight’s game, they are a top 10 team in free throw shooting as they average 24.6 attempts per game and 19.7 makes, which translates to an impressive success rate of 80.2%.

In breaking down the numbers even more, Chicago has been fouled 990 times while committing 892 themselves. That’s 98 less whistles blown against the Bulls.

The Bulls have made their way to the free throw line 1,255 times and converted 1,006 of those shots, while opponents have taken 950 free throws (305 less than the Bulls) and converted 721 (285 less than the Bulls).

And over their last six games, the Bulls have outscored the opposition at the stripe, 151-97 (a +54 in Chicago’s favor).

To sum up, Chicago’s task is to come out fast and aggressive at both ends of the floor. They need to take control of the boards right away and at no time can they can’t afford to relax or fail to hustle back defensively.

Chicago’s guards should always be at the ready to attack the rim, and defensively, the Bulls, collectively, need to be quick and decisive as to when to jump into the passing lanes in hopes of unsettling Sacramento’s offensive flow.

As a team, the Bulls also have to commit to playing a physical game throughout the entirety of tonight’s contest.

— Anthony Hyde