Keys to the Game: Bulls at Magic (01.24.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (22-23) pay a visit to the Orlando Magic (18-28) in the second of four meetings set for this season. In the first get-together back on November 7th, Chicago powered its way to a 112-80 victory at the United Center. The Bulls took command of the paint early and never backed off. At the end of the game Chicago had outrebounded Orlando, 56-39, including 15-6 on the offensive glass, and outscored the Magic 60-32 in the post. Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler led all scorers with 20 points, while teammates Taj Gibson notched a double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds) and Dwyane Wade chipped in 16 points. Chicago also hit on 25 of 31 free throw attempts, while the Magic could only get to the line six times that night, making five.

For the most part this season, Chicago has flourished when they look to play fast from the moment the ball is tipped-off. Just as they did the first time they faced Orlando, the Bulls will need to hit the hardwood this evening with a great deal of energy and focus.

A primary indicator as to how well the Bulls are going to play on any given night has been how hard they compete on the boards. Chicago currently leads the league in rebounding with an average of 47.4 per game, while Orlando is tied for 19th at 43.0 per game. The Bulls also are parked at the top of the league in offensive window washings, sporting an impressive 13.5 extra snatches, while the Magic are tied at No. 15 with at 9.9 per game.

In a breakdown of numbers, whenever the Magic outrebound or match an opponent on the boards, they have won 10 and lost 10. However, when they are beaten on the glass, they are 8-18. The Bulls, on the other hand, are 19-13 whenever they outrebound or match a foe, and 2-10 when they lose the battle of the boards all together.

A benefit of being a good rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that you grant yourself a number of extra opportunities to score easy baskets from close range. Chicago has done well in this aspect as they come into tonight leading the NBA in second-chance scoring at 16.1 points per game, while the Magic are near the middle at 13th overall, averaging 12.8.

Orlando enters tonight’s contest somewhat banged up, mentally and physically, as they’ve lost four of their last five and are likely to miss four key players whom the team lists as either out or doubtful this evening. Headlining Orlando’s MIAs is starting shooting guard and team scoring leader, Evan Fournier (17 points, 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds in a team leading 33 minutes per game), who has missed five straight games with a heel injury, and is again expected to sit tonight. Stepping up to take his place in the starting lineup will be former Bulls backup, CJ Watson, who hasn’t played a lot this season and is averaging just 2.9 points in 13.4 minutes.

However, all is certainly not lost for the Magic as their overall length and athleticism still pose a serious matchup problem for the Bulls.

Orlando’s frontcourt pairing of high-flying small forward Aaron Gordon (11.5 points) and veteran strongman Serge Ibaka (15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks), along with lightning quick point guard Elfrid Payton (12.5 points, 6 assists) and double-double machine, Nikola Vucevic (13.7 points, 9.8 rebounds), are all capable of taking over a game at a moment’s notice.

Gordon has become more of a complete player as this season wears on, hitting shots from outside the arc on more regular basis while also continuing to rattle a number of rims with his jaw-dropping hops. In 12 games this month, the fourth overall pick just two years ago is averaging a solid 14.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.

As for Payton, the 22-year old, 6’4” floor general out of Louisiana-Lafayette has been on fire of late, averaging 20.6 points and 7.8 assists while shooting 53.9% from the field in the Magic’s last six games.

The Magic also just inked shooting guard Anthony Brown to a 10-day contract. A former standout at Stanford, Brown hits O-town after lighting up the D-League with the Erie BayHawks. In 16 starts, the 6’7” wingman averaged 21.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting in incredible 47.2 percent from 3-point range.

Defensively, Chicago is going to need to stay tied together in order to shut down open paths to the basket, especially whenever Payton or Gordon look to attack. If either attempts to drive into the paint, Chicago’s team defense, will need to send a clear and forceful message that doing so comes at a cost.

The Magic will look to turn tonight’s game into a track meet. In order for the Bulls to survive, they simply can’t allow them to run free. The Bulls need to contest every pass and shot Orlando attempts, and from the start, they must wrestle control of the boards and the paint, which would go a long way to shutting down Orlando’s running game.       

Offensively, the Bulls are also at their best when they vigorously push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. The ball truly needs to skip and be shared among everyone. Each Chicagoan on the court has to stay active and fully engaged.

When the Bulls record more assists than the opposition, they’ve gone 11-3. Conversely, the Magic are 17-8 when they out “dime” their opponents. Thus unselfish ball movement is an essential element for both the Bulls and Magic in winning tonight’s contest.

As a team, Chicago has done a tremendous job of getting to the free throw line this season, and keeping the opposition off the stripe. So far they have outscored opponents 884-640 from the charity stripe, which translates to a +244 points for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is he averaging a career-best 24.7 points, but Butler also ranks 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.3), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.6), while converting a career-best 87.1% from the stripe.

In short, Chicago’s mission is to come out fast and strong and never relax. From the opening tip to the final horn, the Bulls have play with an edge and prove tenacious in every phase of the game. They have to take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor. They also have to sport a dogged mindset and be ready to hustle back on defense and jump the passing lanes in order to disrupt Orlando’s offensive flow. Simply put, Chicago has to get after it and stay after it all night long.

-- Anthony Hyde