Keys to the Game: Bulls at Magic (02.06.21)

The Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic complete a back-to-back-mini-set this evening in Orlando. Last night in the opener, the Magic staved off a furious Chicago rally to come away with a 123-119 victory, snapping a three-game home losing streak.

Orlando big man, Nikola Vučević, played the role of "The Terminator," delivering a career night of 43 points and 19 rebounds to lead both teams. The 10-year, 7-foot center scored 13 of the Magic's first 15 points, and later hit a clutch hook shot with just 1:49 left after Chicago had rallied to knot the score at 112. On the night, Vučević hit 17 of 29 shots, including 4 3-pointers in a dominating performance.

The loss for Chicago was their second straight and fifth in their last six games. The Bulls went on a 29-15 run late in the fourth to tie the game but couldn't find a way to pull out the victory. Leading man, Zach LaVine, looked to get the ball into the hands of his teammates rather than shoot himself, registering seven assists through three quarters. But with Chicago down double digits entering the fourth, the high-powered guard went into attack mode and almost turned the tables. The 6'5" wingman came into the night 10th in the league in scoring at 26.5 points per game, but had only two points entering the final stanza before busting loose, hitting 8 of 14 from the field and going a perfect 7 of 7 from the charity stripe in notching 24 points in a little over 11 minutes of work.

Chicago rookie, Patrick Williams, posted a career-best 20 points, while Coby White chipped in 16. Veteran Thaddeus Young had another great game off the bench with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Lauri Markkanen got off to a quick start with 13 points and five rebounds but had to leave the game early with a sprained right shoulder only a few minutes into the third.

Speaking of injuries, both the Magic and Bulls are currently missing key players due to ailments. Chicago is without starting pivot Wendell Carter Jr. for at least the next three weeks (and maybe longer) because of a serious right quadriceps injury, as well as veteran forward Otto Porter Jr., who will sit for a third straight game tonight due to back spasms. And now Markkanen might also have to sit out this evening.

As for Orlando, their trainer's room is overflowing. Sidelined tonight and possibly long into the future are forwards Al-Farouq Aminu with a bum right knee, Aaron Gordon with a high left ankle sprain, and power forward Jonathan Isaac, who is rehabbing from left knee surgery. Starting point guard Markelle Fultz is also out for the year with a torn left ACL, and former Bull, Michael Carter-Williams, is currently battling a sprained left foot. Though, there's a chance Carter-Williams could return to the lineup tonight.

The Bulls have been competitive in just about every game, but oftentimes have struggled down the stretch. Seven of Chicago's 13 losses have now been by less than five points.

If anything is certain, the Bulls need to get off to strong starts if they're going to find success. Offensively, they must freely share the ball and get everyone involved in the action, making the ball jump from player-to-player. Smart, decisive passing will free up driving lanes to the basket, as well as create uncontested jumpers from behind the three-point arc.

Chicago has done a fantastic job of being unselfish this season, recording six games of 30 or more assists. They had just two such games all last year. However, this time around, their unselfish play has made their offense potent and caused nightmares for opponents.

On the whole, the Bulls are lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 115.0 points (7th) while shooting an impressive 47.7% from the field (7th), including 37.2% (11th) from behind the three-point arc. However, defense has been Chicago's Achilles heel, as they're surrendering 117.4 points (27th), and allowing opponents to connect on 48.0% of their shots (27th). So obviously, the Bulls have to come up with a way to tighten up defensively if they intend to win more than they lose.

Another major issue for the Bulls this season has been their failure to consistently take care of the ball. As high-powered as their offense has proven to be, on the whole, the Bulls turn the ball over way too many times (16.7). However, maybe, just maybe that issue could be a thing of the past, as over their last three games, the Bulls have turned the ball over just 29 times, which translates to 9.7 per game. If Chicago can consistently stay in the range of a more practical 12 to 13 turnovers a game, and the defense continues to round into shape, especially down in the paint, the Bulls could make a legitimate postseason run.

A principal key for the Bulls is to always play fast, but as mentioned, they must consistently take care of the ball when it's in their hands. Continual player movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will generate a free-flowing rhythm and force opponents onto their heels.

Another vital part of the game Chicago must continue fine tuning is its ability to effectively communicate, and work together on both ends of the floor. As the season has gone on, the Bulls have gotten better in just about every area. And to that end, they have to continue to hustle and never back down to a challenge. They can't afford to lower the temperature and allow opponents to find a comfort zone and dictate the pace of the game.

LaVine is Chicago's best weapon, and so he needs to play well night in and night out. However, he doesn't need to carry all the weight by himself. Markkanen is often Chicago's second option, as he's averaging 19.1 points as well as just under six rebounds, while second-year playmaker Coby White is capable of getting blistering hot and taking over at any moment offensively. Chicago's bench also plays a major role in this team's success. So, for the Bulls to come out on top, they need contributions from up and down the roster.

As for tonight's opponent, Vučević is Orlando's primary scoring threat, as he leads the way with a team-high 23.4 points and 11.5 rebounds, followed by veteran wing Evan Fournier (17.8 points). Rookie Cole Anthony is also proving to be a key player for the Magic as he's producing 11.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.9 assists a game.