Keys to the Game: Bulls at Magic (02.05.21)

The Bulls and the Orlando Magic tip-off a back-to-back mini-series this evening in the Magic Kingdom. Chicago comes in having just split a pair of games against the New York Knicks back home at the United Center, while Orlando hits the hardwood having lost six of its last seven, including three-straight at home. In their last game Tuesday at the Amway Center, the Magic fell victim to Rockford, IL native Fred VanVleet's career-high 54 points to lead Toronto to a 128-103 victory. Nikola Vučević led the Magic with 21 points and 18 rebounds.

Orlando trailed 64-60 at halftime and even led 77- 74 midway through the third quarter. However, Toronto responded with a 14-0 run and never looked back.

So far this season the Magic are 6-9 against Eastern Conference foes, while the Bulls are 4-5. Chicago has also been a solid road team, splitting 10 games, going 3-1 against the East and 2-4 vs. the West. In their last 10 against Orlando, the Bulls are 7-3.

Both Chicago and the Magic are currently dealing with injuries to key players. The Bulls are missing starting pivot Wendell Carter Jr. for at least the next three weeks (maybe longer) with a serious right quadriceps injury, and veteran forward Otto Porter Jr., who will sit tonight because of a balky back.

As for Orlando, their injury list is long. Sitting out and most likely again tomorrow are: forward Al-Farouq Aminu with a bum right knee; guard Michael Carter-Williams with a sprained left foot; guard Markelle Fultz with a torn left ACL; forward Aaron Gordon with a high left ankle sprain; and power forward Jonathan Isaac, who is still sidelined recovering from left knee surgery.

The Bulls have been competitive in nearly every game this season, but at times have struggled down the stretch. Six of Chicago's 12 losses have been by less than five points. In their most recent loss to New York on Wednesday, the Bulls had a rough shooting night early, opening the game 8-of-21 (38.1%) from the field overall and 0-of-8 (0.0%) from behind the arc, and trailed the Knicks 34-17 after 12 minutes. Chicago found its stroke in the second quarter, shooting 12-of-21 (57.1%) and 4-of-10 (40.0%) from deep, but the Knicks were able to hold their own and led by 11 at the half.

All-in-all, Chicago's slow start cost them the game in the end, as they were able to outshoot New York 54.5% to 30.0% in the fourth quarter, and outscore them 27-16, but it was too little, too late, as the Knicks hung on for a 107-103 victory.

If anything is certain, for the Bulls to succeed this season they must get off to a strong start and freely share the ball, making it hop from player-to-player and keep everyone involved in the action. Smart, quick passing helps to free up paths to the basket, as well as uncontested jump-shots around the three-point arc. This season Chicago has played unselfish ball, recording six games of 30 or more assists. The team had just two 30-assist outings all last year. However, this time around, the Bulls have done a terrific job of moving the ball, which has made their offense potent and forced opponents to take notice.

On the whole, Chicago is averaging 114.8 points (7th) and shooting an impressive 47.7% overall from the field (7th), including 37.5% (11th) from behind the three-point arc. However, on the other side of the ball, the Bulls have plenty of work still to do, as they're surrendering 117.1 points (27th), and opponents are connecting on 47.9% of their shots (26th). Without question, the Bulls need to find a way to tighten things up defensively if they want to be a playoff team.

Another major issue for Chicago has been its failure to reliably take care of the ball. As high-powered as they've been on offense, the Bulls turn the ball over way too many times (17.2). If they can cut down those miscues to a more practical number (12 to 13 per game), and their overall defense stiffens, especially down in the paint, the Bulls could make a serious postseason run. In the last game against New York, Chicago committed a season low nine turnovers, and held New York to 107 points, so, anything is possible!

Thus, a primary key every game for the Bulls is to play fast, but as mentioned, they can't come up empty on 17 or more possessions due to careless turnovers. Constant ball and player movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will produce a free-flowing rhythm and force opponents to scramble and blow defensive assignments.

Another vital facet of the game the Bulls must continue to fine tune is its ability to communicate effectively, as well as trust one another at both ends of the floor. If you look closely and pay attention to the little things, you'll see the Bulls have gotten better in these areas. To that end, they must continue to go all out and deliver a hardnosed effort. They can't relax and permit the opposition to slip into a comfort zone and dictate the pace of the game.

Zach LaVine leads the Bulls at 26.5 points per contest. Power forward Lauri Markkanen is Chicago's second option, with 19.6 points as well as 6.2 boards, while second-year playmaker Coby White chips in 15.3 points and 5.7 assists a game.

The short-handed Magic's biggest struggle since losing multiple starters to injury has been their inability to create open looks at the basket. The Magic have the worst expected field goal rating in the league at 49.4%. That is 4.3% lower than league average (per cleaningtheglass.com).

Rookie Cole Anthony has become a key player for Orlando. Prior to the season, Anthony was expected to come off the bench behind Fultz and provide the second unit with some offensive punch. However, due to Fultz tearing his ACL earlier in the season, and now with Gordon sidelined for multiple weeks, the Magic has had to rely on their 20-year-old first-year guard to direct the offense.

Nikola Vučević is Orlando's primary scoring threat, as he leads the way with a team-high 22.5 points and 11.2 rebounds, followed by veteran wing Evan Fournier (17.6 points). Anthony clocks in at 11 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists a game. The 6'11", 260-pound Vučević was an All-Star in 2018-19. He not only takes up a lot of space and scores down low, he's also got a smooth jumper behind the arc, attempting a little over six long distance shots per game and hitting 43.3%.

As mentioned earlier, if the Bulls can keep turnovers in check, and continue to hustle and battle on both the offensive and defensive boards, as well as deliver gritty efforts in going hard after every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves a great opportunity to come out on top tonight against the Orlando Magic.