Keys to the Game: Bulls at Knicks (02.29.20)

The Bulls visit Gotham City for a late afternoon matinee against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden today. Chicago is coming off a gut-wrenching 124-122 home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in the week, while the Knicks hope to snap a six-game losing streak of their own. In their last game New York came up short in Philadelphia, 115-106 on Thursday despite taking on a shorthanded Sixers squad missing All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Knicks strongman Julius Randle led New York with 30 points and 10 rebounds, while journeyman point guard Elfrid Payton also notched a double-double of his own with 18 points and 12 assists.

As for the Bulls against the Thunder, they got off to a horrendous start, falling behind by 24 points at one stretch in the opening half, before rallying after halftime. In what has become a normal occurrence this season, Zach LaVine put on another spectacular show for the home folks, scoring 27 of his game-high 41 points on the night to lead Chicago's second half push. Rookie guard Coby White also lit up the scoreboard with a career-high 35 points, giving him three consecutive games of 30 or more. The two-point loss, however, was Chicago's ninth in their last 10 games, which has essentially put the team's early season playoff hopes on ice with a record of 20-39.

Although this year has turned sour (to say the least), the sun just might start to shine on the Bulls, as both Wendell Carter Jr. (high ankle sprain) and Denzel Valentine (strained hamstring) are expected to take the floor for the first time in a long time, albeit under a minutes limit. Carter Jr. has missed Chicago's last 22 games after averaging 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds to start the year. At the time of his injury, the Bulls ranked 6th in the league with a defensive rating of 105.6, however since he's been out, Chicago has fallen to 23rd, giving up 8.1 points per 100 possessions more per game.

As for today, an interesting facet for everyone to keep an eye on will be to see if Coby White can continue lighting up the scoreboard. As mentioned earlier, the 6'5 rookie out of North Carolina posted a career-best 35 points against OKC on Tuesday, after putting up 33 against both Phoenix and Washington, prior. If he's able to hit for 30 or more again today, he'll be the first rookie to make it four straight since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in 1997.

Another noteworthy feature to keep tabs on will also be LaVine's ability to put points on the board. His 41-point performance against OKC raised his season total to a career-high 1,504 points scored (tied for 5th in the league) on the year. With today being Chicago's 60th game, if LaVine can stay healthy and on the floor, he's going to place his name high up on the list of the franchise's all-time single season scoring leaders. In addition, the 41-point effort was the ninth time LaVine's recorded 40-points while wearing a Bulls uniform, and the sixth time this season.

For Chicago to come out on top this afternoon they will have to produce a hardnosed, blue-collar effort at both ends of the floor. Despite frequently getting off to strong, early starts this season, the Bulls have often had hard time sustaining momentum, especially during second halves. Thus, not only will they need another fast start today, they'll need to keep the energy pumping at a high level for the entire 48 minutes of today's contest.

Therefore, it's vital Chicago plays unselfishly, sharing the ball freely, constantly skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while exploring ways to attack the rim. All five Bulls on the floor must constantly stay involved in the action.

Defensively, the Bulls must be willing to establish a hardscrabble tone from the opening tip. Entering today's game, Chicago leads the league in forcing opponent turnovers (18.1) and making them pay in scoring off those turnovers (21.0 per game). In fact, this season the Bulls have forced 20-or-more turnovers 20 times, the most in the NBA. So it only makes sense that they'll need to constantly pressure the ball and quickly recognize when the time is right to jump passing lanes and double-team the ball so that they can upset New York's tempo from start to finish.