Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Wizards (02.08.21)

The Bulls return home after splitting a pair of back-to-back games in Orlando over the weekend. The Washington Wizards make their first visit to the Windy City, but tonight's contest will be the third between Chicago and DC. The Bulls swept the first two played in our Nation's Capital just before the calendar flipped to 2021.

Fans can catch tonight's action live on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670 / TUND, Univision 1200AM) beginning at 7:00 PM.

In Chicago's last outing Saturday night against the Orlando Magic, the Bulls stampeded out of the chute, playing with aggression and purpose the moment the ball was tossed to start the game. After witnessing Magic big man Nikola Vučević power his way to a 43-point, 19-rebound game the night before, Chicago made a concerted effort from the jump to shut him down and take command of the paint, and that's exactly what they did. The Bulls went into halftime holding a 28-10 edge in the paint and finished the night with 50 points below the free throw line. As for Vučević, the 7-foot monster was held to 17 points and eight rebounds and departed the game with a -41 +/- rating, which ain't good!

If the Bulls come out with the same aggressive attitude against the Wizards, they should be in great shape for another win.

Tonight's contest is the second of a back-to-back for Washington, as yesterday afternoon the Wizards got stung by the Hornets in Charlotte, 119-97. It was DC's 15th loss this season and seventh in their last nine outings. It was also the fourth time the Wizards were blown out by 20 or more points.

Washington had trouble containing Charlotte's backcourt pairing of Terry Rozier (26-points, five treys) and rookie playmaker LaMelo Ball (19 points, seven rebounds and five assists), as well as veteran small forward Gordon Hayward, who added 25 points. The Hornets led 34-31 after 12 minutes, and jumped out to a 69-52 advantage by halftime, never to look back.

The Wizards were led by the NBA's leading scorer, Bradley Beal, who enters tonight averaging an eye-popping 33.2 points. The former Florida Gator who played under Chicago coach Billy Donovan during his college days, poured in 31 points behind 11 of 22 shooting, including three shots from deep.

Beal's backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook, a former league MVP and nine-time All-Star, came within an assist of posting his sixth triple-double this year with 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine dimes. While former Bulls center and Chicago favorite, Robin Lopez, came off the DC bench to contribute 14 points and five rebounds.

Offense really hasn't been a problem for the Wizards as they rank 8th in the league by scoring 114.3 points a game. Defense is where the rubber meets the road with the Wiz, as they're dead last in guarding the hoop, allowing opponents 121.1 points. They're also not a very good rebounding team, ranking 25th on the glass, corralling 43.6 rebounds while allowing the other guys to snag 46.7. And lastly, they haven't done a good job of getting in the face of the opposition when it comes to contesting shots, as foes are hitting a pretty ridiculous 48.3% from the field as well as 39.4% from behind the arc.

If DC is ever going to turn things around this season, they'll need to get serious about defending the hoop, otherwise they better have a fine-tuned lucky charm in their possession by the time the NBA Draft lottery rolls around at the end of the season.

As for the Bulls, they improved to 9-13 with Saturday's 118-92 thumping of the Magic. With the game knotted at 31 apiece after the opening stanza, the Bulls outscored Orlando 30-12 in the second quarter to take control for the rest of the night. Overall, the Bulls shot 51.6% from the floor, including 15 of 30 (50.0%) from downtown, while holding Orlando to 38.9% shooting.

Once again, Zach LaVine proved deadly for the Magic with a 39-point, seven rebound and four assist game. It was the ninth time this season LaVine has gone off for 30+ points. He comes into tonight averaging 27.0 per game, good for 9th in the league.

Bulls rookie Patrick Williams is also flashing plenty of promise of late. Over the weekend Williams set new career-bests with 20-points on Friday and followed up with his first NBA double-double on Saturday with a 16-point, 10-rebound game. For the weekend, the 19-year old, 6'8 forward shot 14 of 24 (58.3%) from the field and was a perfect 7 of 7 from the charity stripe (1.000%) while also grabbing 17 rebounds.

Chicago is going to need more of that kind of production out of Williams because earlier today it was learned that Lauri Markkanen (19.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg) will be sidelined for the next two-to-four weeks after injuring his right shoulder against Orlando on Friday night. Markkanen's long absence will also put some added heat on Bulls veteran Thaddeus Young, who is in his 14th season, but playing like a spry 25-year old kid of late. In his last four games, Young has shot 27 of 41 (65.9%), grabbed 5.5 rebounds and handed out 4.8 assists while coming off the bench.

Defense for both teams will be a major key in tonight's game. For Chicago to succeed, they'll need to slow Washington's high-powered dynamic duo of Westbrook and Beal. The Bulls will need to stay focused and poised and do a great job of talking and rotating on defense. They'll need to keep Westbrook and Beal far from the hoop and out of the paint as much as possible. Beal is a terrific sniper from three-point range, whereas Westbrook is best when running downhill and getting to the basket, finding teammates open on the wings if he can't find a way to finish at the rim. The Bulls' defenders must keep an eye out for Beal (7.6 3FGA), as well as DC forward Dāvis Bertāns (7.7 3FGA) hovering on the arc. Every three-point shot the Wizards launch needs to be contested, otherwise if left alone, Beal and Bertans can torch the twine all night long.

Offensively, the Bulls must continue to freely share the ball, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, forcing Washington to expend energy playing defense. Simply put, the ball cannot get stuck in any one player's hands.

A principal key for Chicago every game is to play fast, but they also need to take care of the ball by not rushing and committing silly turnovers. Continual player and ball movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will generate a free-flowing rhythm and force opponents to scramble defensively.

Another vital aspect Chicago must continue to fine tune is its ability to effectively communicate, and work together on both ends of the floor. As the season has gone on, the team has gotten better in doing exactly this.

To that end, the Bulls have to continue to hustle and refuse to back down from a challenge. They can't allow the temperature of the game to lower and permit opponents to slip into a comfort zone and dictate the pace of the game.