Keys to the Game: Bulls at Lakers (01.08.21)

The Bulls visit the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles tonight to take on the defending NBA Champion Lakers for the first time this season. The teams will catch up with one another again in a little over two weeks in Chicago, on Saturday, January 23rd at 7:00 p.m.

Tonight's contest is also the second of a back-to-back for the Lakers, who came up short against the visiting San Antonio Spurs last night, 118-109, snapping LA's four-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Bulls also hit the floor looking to bounce back after falling 128-124 Wednesday in Sacramento. Fans can catch tonight's game on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670) beginning at 9:00 PM.

Chicago comes into tonight's contest at No. 3 in the league in Pace with a score of 105.8, and ranks 7th in scoring at 115.0 per game, while LA ranks 19th in Pace at 100.4, and 11th in scoring at 113.6 per game.

Pace is an advanced metric statistic that measures the number of possessions a team gets in a 48-minute game. The more possessions, the more opportunities to score. Thus, for the Bulls, especially going up against the defending champs, the more opportunities to score the better. So, if Chicago is going to pull off an upset, they most assuredly will need to continue to play fast by controlling the ball and taking off down the floor as often as possible to post easy scores in transition.

Unfortunately, the Bulls will be shorthanded again without the help of Lauri Markkanen, Tomas Satoransky, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison, each of whom plays a key role for the team. Those four will also miss Sunday's game against the Clippers here in LA, as they had to be left home at the start of this four-game West Coast road trip due to NBA health and safety protocols.

A major factor this evening for the Bulls will be how well the team is able to keep turnovers in check while at the same time freely share the ball with one another. Chicago currently ranks dead last in turnovers with an average of 17.8 per game, while the Lakers sit near the middle of the pack in 17th place at 15.3. LA is at its best when they force opponents to rush on offense and mishandle the ball, allowing four-time MVP LeBron James to get out on the break and direct the Lakers' charge in transition. If the Bulls can keep turnovers to a reasonable number (13-14), that'll go a long way to slowing LA's attack.

For the Bulls' offense to flow, the ball has to quickly jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the opposition to exert extra energy when it comes to playing defense. Quick and decisive passing also will free up driving lanes through the paint and generate uncontested open looks at the basket from the perimeter. Chicago cannot afford to stand around and watch one guy attempt to take on LA's defense all by himself. There must be constant movement – both player and ball, in and out of the paint – to generate an effective, free-flowing rhythm.

Thus, in order for the Bulls to get back on a winning track, they'll need to come out focused right from the jump and keep that energy flowing until the final horn goes off at the end of the night. Chicago must produce a gritty, hardnosed effort on the boards, as well as hold their own under the hoop and all throughout the paint. They'll also need plenty of help off the bench. One of the Bulls' strengths this season is having a number of savvy veterans (Thaddeus Young, Otto Porter Jr. and Garrett Temple) who understand what it takes to win in this league. Most night's those vets can be found on the floor down the stretch, which has clearly helped Chicago's overall maturation process this season.

The Bulls' starting backcourt of Coby White and Zach LaVine have been blistering hot of late. The other night in Sacramento, White went off for a career-high 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting (.652), while handing out seven assists and committing zero turnovers in 40 minutes. LaVine poured in 32 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Over their last three games, White and LaVine's stats are simply eye-popping. White is averaging 26.7 points, shooting .536 from the field (30-56), and .400 (10-25) from behind the arc, while also grabbing 6.7 rebounds and handing out 5.3 assists. LaVine's numbers over the same three games are just as spectacular in that he's averaging 29.7 points while shooting .493 from the field (33-67) and pulling down 5.7 rebounds and dishing 5.7 assists.

Over the team's last six games, the Bulls have outscored their opponents in the paint, 278-238, and also out rebounded them, 278-251. In order to pull off an upset this evening, both White and LaVine will need to continue lighting up the scoreboard, but they also must make sure their teammates are allowed to get into the flow of the game.

As a team, Chicago must continue working hard to command the boards, and equally work to govern what goes on in the paint, in order to come out on top against a very talented and deep Lakers team.