Keys to the Game: Bulls at Knicks (04.04.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (38-39) stop by Gotham City to take on the New York Knicks (29-48) for the third and final time. New York won the two earlier contests rather handily, first at the United Center 117-104 in early November, and then again at Madison Square Garden, 104-89, on January 12th. However these days that feels like ancient history as the Bulls and Knicks are clearly headed in opposite directions.

Chicago takes the floor this evening having gone 7-4 over its last 11 games and seeks to win its fifth straight tonight, which would put the Bulls in a great spot to punch a playoff ticket in the very near future, while New York has gone 3-8 over its last 11, and was eliminated from any postseason considerations early last week.

With only five games left to play before the playoffs begin, the Bulls currently are the 7th seed in the East with essentially a two-game lead over Miami and Indiana thanks to having a slightly better overall record and owning tie-breakers over both the Heat and Pacers. In fact, Chicago could conceivably wind up as the 6th seed and maybe even climb as high as the 5th spot if they keep winning down the stretch and either Atlanta and/or Milwaukee stumble a couple of times over the next eight days.

After tonight’s Knicks game, Chicago heads to Philadelphia and Brooklyn before returning home to close the season against Orlando and Brooklyn next week, thus the team’s playoff fate unmistakably lies in their own hands. Including tonight, combined, the Bulls’ next five opponents have gone 120-265 (.311) this season. So if for some reason they fail to make the playoffs now, all Chicago will need to do is look in the mirror to find the one to blame.     

When things are going well for the Bulls it is usually because they are playing fast and aggressive. Therefore, in order to keep rolling tonight, Chicago will need to come to work ready to run and sport a gritty, blue-collar mindset.

A key indicator as to how well the Bulls are playing is generally how active they are on the boards. Currently Chicago ranks 3rd in the NBA in overall rebounding, snaring 45.9 missed shots a game. And as for offensive glasswork, they haven’t taken a backseat to anyone in this category all year long, collecting a league-best 12.2. That strong, steady and consistent effort has propelled Chicago to also lead the NBA in second-chance scoring (15.2 per game) for most of the season. And since they aren’t a particularly deft outside shooting team (Chicago ranks 25th out of 30 teams, making 44.4 FG %), being able to command the glass and stockpile points most nights via easy put-backs and close-range jumpers has kept them in a number of games. For the year, the Bulls are 30-18 when they outrebound opponents, and 16-11 when they outscore them in the paint.

Offensively, the Bulls seem to really hit their stride when they consistently push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For their offense to truly kick into gear, it’s vital Chicago plays unselfishly, freely sharing the ball. Every player on the court needs to be active and engaged. The evidence is pretty clear in this regard as Chicago has gone 20-12 this season when they outscore opponents in transition, and 22-7 when they record the most assists.

With that in mind, the best way for the Bulls to achieve these goals is for them to continue to spread out and space the floor while at the same time look for opportunities to attack the rim.

In their 117-110 victory over the Pelicans the other night in New Orleans, the Bulls did a tremendous job in just about every phase of the game. They consistently placed shooters far apart at the offensive end, forcing the Pels to eventually abandon the paint defensively, which in turn allowed the Bulls to establish a fast and efficient tempo.

In total, Chicago shot an impressive 45-of-92 from the field (48.9%) overall, hitting 13-of-26 (50.0%) from distance, while dishing 26 assists and committing just 11 turnovers. The Bulls also outrebounded New Orleans 9-6 on the offensive glass and 49-40 overall, which led to advantages of 32-12 in fastbreak scoring (23 of which came as a direct result of New Orleans turnovers), and 14-2 in second-chance scoring, as well as a 46-40 edge in points in the paint. Jimmy Butler led the way with 39 points, his second-straight game with 30+ points (Butler scored 33 against Atlanta on Saturday).

Sunday’s 13 made 3s was also the Bulls’ seventh straight game of 10+ makes from distance — a season-best — and the franchise’s longest such streak since 1983-84. After shooting an awful 32.4% from beyond the arc over its first 70 games this year, the Bulls have suddenly gotten hot from downtown by connecting 44.1% of the time over their last seven contests.

As for the Knicks, superstar Carmelo Anthony is expected to be in the lineup this evening after sitting the last two games with an injured back. Once again the 6’8” forward leads New York in scoring and minutes at 22.5 points and 34.5 minutes a game.

Another New Yorker deserving of praise and scrutiny is 7’3” second-year forward/center Kristaps Porzingas, who is the only player in the league this season to have posted at least 1,195 points, 470 rebounds, 130 blocks and 110 three-pointers. Nicknamed The Unicorn for there is no other quite like him in the league, the 21-year old comes into this evening averaging 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, and two blocks in almost 33 minutes.

However, New York will not have to two former Bulls in their lineup this evening, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Rose was shut down late last week after it was discovered he needs surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. In 64 games the 6’3” guard was averaging 18 points and 4.4 assists. Noah, a free agent pick up last summer, simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy most of the year, playing in just 46 games and putting up five points and 8.7 rebounds. However, poor health isn’t the reason why Noah won’t play as he’s currently out of action due to a league imposed 20-game suspension for the use of a fairly innocuous health supplement any one of us could easily buy over-the-counter at their local drug store.

To sum up, Chicago’s principal task this evening is to come out fast and strong from the opening tip and keep its foot on the gas until the final buzzer. Basically, the Bulls need to play with an edge. They must look to control of the glass — at both ends of the floor — and in doing so, mercilessly govern the paint. They must also push the pace and share the ball, keeping everyone engaged.

For all intents and purposes Chicago needs to play with a heavy dose of physicality while at the same time stay focused and poised.

The season is rapidly winding down, thus each and every opportunity to post a victory is important. In order to accomplish the goal of making the playoffs, the Bulls need to commit to a hardnosed effort each and every day.

—   Anthony Hyde