Keys to the Game: Bulls at Knicks (04.28.21)

The Bulls and the New York Knicks complete their season series tonight at Madison Square Garden. The contest also concludes an important three-game road trip for Chicago. The Bulls split a pair of games with the Heat in Miami at the start, as Chicago captured a hard fought 110-102 victory behind Nikola Vučević's team-leading 10th double-double of 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Daniel Theis' season-best 23 point / 12 rebound effort on Monday. The win moved the Bulls to within one game of Washington for 10th in the East, a spot that grants a ticket at the end of the season to the NBA's play in tournament and a chance to compete in the playoffs. Chicago owns the tie-breaker over the Wizards if they finish with the same record, so if they can catch DC, it would be the Bulls first playoff appearance in four years.

New York takes the floor looking to rebound after falling to Phoenix, 118-110, Monday night as well. The loss snapped a nine-game winning streak for Gotham City. It was the Knicks' longest winning streak since the 2012-13 season when they posted 13 wins in a row.

The Knicks currently sit No. 4 in the East with a record of 34-28, while Chicago is in the 11th slot at 26-35. New York has done well when facing Eastern Conference opponents this season, going 22-17, and overall, they are the NBA leaders in allowing only 104.9 points per game and holding the opposition to a rather paltry 44.3% shooting.

The Bulls are 16-15 against the East. Led by veteran forward Thaddeus Young (10.5 PITP / 12.1 ppg overall), Chicago ranks fourth in the Conference in scoring 50.1 points in the paint.

The Knicks won 107-103 in the last match-up between the teams back on February 3rd in Chicago. Julius Randle led New York with 27 points, and Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 24. Chicago came out on top in the first meeting two days earlier, 110-102. Lauri Markkanen led the Bulls that night with a game-high 30 points, while Randle recorded a double-double of 23 points and 11 rebounds.

As for tonight's series rubber match, a key task for Chicago once again will be to shut down the paint as much as possible, while at the same time aggressively challenge every mid-range and long-distance perimeter shot from behind the arc.

For most of this season Chicago has resided near the bottom of the league in preventing opponents from scoring down low, as foes have met a moderate amount of resistance driving the ball hard to the rim. The Bulls are tied for 26th, allowing 49.7 points a game scored in the paint. However, New York generates most of its offense inside the arc, ranking 7th overall with 10.5% of their nightly scores coming from mid-range.

All-Star forward Julius Randle has been New York's best offensive weapon this season, averaging 23.9 points to go along with 6.0 assists a game. Usually, power forwards don't dish the ball at that rate, but Randle has been nothing short of spectacular all season long in just about every area. He not only can power his way to the hoop, but he can knock down shots from behind the arc, too, shooting a career-best 41.6% from deep. He's also New York's top rebounder at 10.5 per game.

Lastly, Randle's posted five triple-doubles, and 38 double-doubles this season. So, without a doubt, the Bulls will have to pay very close attention to him tonight.

Second year wing, RJ Barrett, is another key player for New York. The former Duke Blue Devil is second on the team in scoring at 17.5 points. Barrett has improved drastically from three-point land as compared to last year when he shot 32% from beyond the arc to 38.8% this season, up 6.8%. He has feasted from the corners, shooting 43.2% from the left corner and 38.6% from the right.

And finally, Chicago can't afford to sleep on Windy City native and Bulls fan favorite Derrick Rose.

Rose recorded 22 points, six rebounds and six assists across 33 minutes off the bench in Monday's loss against the Suns. He not only paced the Knicks in scoring, but he's now scored at least 20 points in three of his last five appearances. The veteran point guard has also scored at least 15 points six games in a row and is firmly entrenched as a lethal weapon off the bench for the Knicks, and former Bulls and current New York Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. The fact that Rose has dished five or more assists in all but one of his last six outings is also a plus for New York.

As a unified group, Chicago must sport a feisty attitude and play with an edge. They have to fight tooth and nail each game to control the boards at both ends of the floor, and force opponents to operate away from the basket, denying them opportunities to run out in transition or stack points with easy put backs off missed shots. They also have to be physical by battling their way through, and not under screens, making sure no one breaks free or unearths an open route to the hoop.

Offensively, the Bulls need to play unselfish by constantly passing the ball from player-to-player and skipping it from side-to-side. Free-flowing movement puts pressure on the defense, and if both ball and player movement are relentless enough, the defense will eventually crack and fall apart. Fluid ball movement also makes it easier to find open paths to the basket and opportunities to finish at the rim with high percentage shots. Lastly, it also keeps everyone invested and involved in the flow of the game.

New York's success this year is due to its stifling defense, which is a patented trademark of Tom Thibodeau coached teams. The Bulls need to stay focused and poised when the Knicks look to turn the screws with traps and full-court pressure. Thus, the Bulls' ability to stay the course by constantly skipping the ball from player to player and from side to side will be a major factor in what happens tonight.

Nikola Vučević's recent addition has also allowed the Bulls to modify its offensive scheme, especially at the start of every game. These days Chicago looks to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often as he's one of the NBA's most efficient scorers.

Besides having a velvet touch at the rim, Vučević is a two-way offensive threat as he can slip behind the three-point arc and hit big shots from deep. Currently he's shooting a robust 41.8% from the arc, placing him in the top 15.

Vučević's unique skillset also makes it impossible for opposing pivots to root themselves under the basket. Once he hits from the arc, his defender has to leave the paint to guard him up top. That opens the floor and makes it easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.

The proof is definitely in the pudding, as since the beginning of April, with this updated plan of attack, the Bulls have dished 28.7 assists a game, placing them among the very best in the game.