Keys to the Game: Bulls at Magic (12.13.18)

Tonight the Bulls travel South of the Border to Mexico City to meet up with the Orlando Magic at Arena Ciudad de Mexico. This is the first time Chicago has ever played in Mexico, while Orlando visited once before in 2012, and will be staying in town to take on the Utah Jazz Saturday to close out the NBA’s 2018 Mexico City Games sponsored by Nike.

Both teams are going to have to adjust to playing in Mexico City’s mile-high altitude. The Bulls started fast against Sacramento on Monday, stampeding to a 56-45 lead after two quarters. However Chicago ran out of gas in the second half, getting outscored 63-33 to wind up on the short end of a 108-89 loss, the team’s third in four games under new head coach Jim Boylen.

The Magic have also struggled recently after enjoying a decent start to the season. Orlando has dropped its last three games, and seven of out of 10, but at this time they sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with a record of 12-15.

Orlando’s attack is led by center Nikola Vucevic, who’s averaging 20.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, along with high-flying forward Aaron Gordon (16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds), and heady shooting guard Evan Fournier (15.1 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds). A couple of former Bulls, D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant, run the point for the Magic. Augustin has started every game and has been solid in posting 10.1 points and 5.1 assists, while Grant comes off the bench and logs just under 20 minutes a night.

If Chicago is to begin turning their fortunes around this evening they’re going to have to deliver an aggressive and smart effort for the entire 48 minutes of the game. Too often of late the Bulls play well for short stretches but suddenly go ice cold from the field and lose focus. The other night against Sacramento they committed an absurd 27 turnovers leading to 18 fastbreak points for the Kings, 12 of which came in the second half while the Bulls were shutout with zero fastbreak points in the game’s final 24 minutes.

Under the direction of newly appointed head coach Jim Boylen, Chicago’s offensive plan is to try to slow the pace of the game down by setting up in the halfcourt and grinding the shot-clock down before launching a shot so as to force opponents play defense and burn energy for most of the 24-second shot clock. For this to work the Bulls have to get and keep all five players involved in the action. They cannot allow the offense to mutate into a series of ball-stopping one-on-one contests. The ball needs to freely jump from player-to-player and from one side to the other to force the defense to scramble. Chicago must also be smart with the ball and not force feed any risky passes that can get picked-off and help ignite the opponent’s offense by letting them speed up the pace by getting into transition.

Another important factor tonight is to limit Orlando’s ability to post second-chance points. The Magic are blessed with lots of size and athleticism in the likes of Vucevic, Gordon, second-year forward Jonathan Isaac and rookie center Mo Bamba. Chicago’s bigs, in particular Wendell Carter Jr, Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis, need to keep the Magic’s giants off the glass as much as possible.

Chicago’s defense will also have to pay attention to the three-point arc. The Magic are shooting .352 percent from the bend coming into the game, and have connected on 10+ threes 18 times this season, including a season-high 20 against Denver just last week.