Keys to the Game: Bulls at Lakers (01.15.18)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls visit the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the first time hoping to halt a seven-game skid while taking on the Lakers. Tonight is also the 153rd time the two teams have tipped-off against one another, with LA holding an 89-63 series lead.

For the Bulls, tonight marks the fourth-game of a five-game Western Conference road trip, as they look to rebound after a 110-102 loss at Utah on Saturday. Los Angeles, sans an injured LeBron James, also looks to bounce back tonight after a disappointing 101-95 home loss to Cleveland on Sunday.

As mentioned, James, who leads the Lakers in scoring (27.3), rebounding (8.3) and assists (7.4) has missed LA’s last 10 games due to a groin pull suffered against Golden State on Christmas Day. Without their leader, the Lakers have gone 3-7, and although they’re 23-21 on the year, they’ve fallen to 9th place in the highly competitive Western Conference standings.

Against the Cavs the other night, LA struggled with their shot, finishing at a rather paltry 39.6% from the field, including 7-of-34 (20.5%) from three-point range. Free throw shooting also proved to be an issue as they connected on just 16-of-27 from the charity stripe (59.3%).

However, there were a few bright spots as second-year forward Kyle Kuzma (29 points, nine rebounds) and third-year swingman Brandon Ingram (22 points, seven rebounds) were terrific, while second-year playmaker Lonzo Ball nearly notched a triple-double (13 points, eight rebounds, eight assists).

With James on the sidelines again tonight, the Bulls will need to focus a great deal of their attention on slowing Kuzma, who besides the tremendous effort against Cleveland, exploded for a career-best 41 points against Detroit a week ago. The 23-year old torched the twine that night by shooting an impressive 16-of-24 (66.7%) overall and 5-of-10 (50%) from behind the arc. The former Utah All-American can do damage in any number of ways, as he’s proven to be a prolific offensive threat from the perimeter, as well as down low.

Ingram, who like Kuzma also stands 6’9” but is 21-years old, is another notable offensive weapon. The former Duke Blue Devil has had to battle a few nagging injuries this year, but when he’s able to play, causes plenty of problems for opponents. On the year Ingram is averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46.8% from the field. In 33 games this season he has scored in double-figures 31 times, including 20-or-more in nine.

As for the Bulls, they’ve be struggling to create an identity, which understandably can be difficult for team that now starts two rookies and is the youngest in the league overall with an average age of 24.2.

How young are the Bulls? Well, of the 16 players on the roster, only one is over the age of 30, while 12 are under 25.

It also doesn’t help that a coaching change was made two months into the season, and that the overall philosophy on how to play changed 180 degrees overnight. Where the Bulls initially were encouraged to play fast and loose, the direction from the bench these days to is slow things down and be far more deliberate.

Either way, for Chicago to come out on top at the end of tonight’s contest they’re going to need to play a smart and physical game. Defensively, they have to force Los Angeles out of its comfort zone by not allowing them to run up and down the floor, but instead make them commit to working in a half-court setting, while Chicago’s defense doubles and traps the ball, especially along the sidelines or when its passed into one of the corners. This aggressive defensive style has helped the Bulls force double-digit turnovers in 10 consecutive outings. Thus continued strong and steady communication between all five Chicago defenders is a must, as that will prove vital to getting LA off balance and forcing them into launching contested shots far from the hoop.

Offensively the Bulls want to establish a somewhat measured pace, but at the same time always keep the ball on the move and look to be opportunistic whenever a chance arises to get into transition.

However, to truly succeed at playing the slow game, Chicago has to make opponents work on defense, compelling them to chase and battle through a series of sturdy screens all over the floor while splitting their attention between defending the perimeter and worrying about the ball getting into the paint and the Bulls attacking the basket.

Since Jim Boylen was named Chicago’s head coach on December 3rd, the Bulls have made a concerted effort to take control of the paint at both ends of the floor. In that time, opponents have been held to under 50 rebounds in 13 of Chicago’s last 16 games, and on four occasions held to under 40 boards in total. Offensively, the Bulls have also scored 50+ points down low in five of their last six games.