Keys to the Game: Bulls at Nets (01.29.19)

The Chicago Bulls (11-39) make their first visit to Flatbush this season to take on the Brooklyn Nets (27-24) at Barclays Center. The teams have met twice already on Chicago’s West Side with Brooklyn winning both, 96-93 on December 19, and 117-100 on January 6th.

The Nets have been on an impressive role since the first week of December, going 19-6 in their last 25 games. Yesterday, however, they fell in Boston, 112-104, snapping a six-game winning streak.

The Celtics took full advantage of the fact that Brooklyn had only 10 available players as six (five of whom usually play significant minutes) were forced to the sidelines due to a variety of injuries. Starting power forward Treveon Graham (lower back), sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie (right thumb surgery), forwards Allen Crabbe (right knee), Jared Dudley (left hamstring), guard Caris LeVert (right foot) and swingman Dzanan Musa (left shoulder) sat out the game. All but Graham are likely to be out again tonight.

As for the game, the Celtics were able to physically manhandle their guests in the post, outscoring the Nets 56-44 in the paint and holding them to 37.9% shooting overall, their lowest shooting percentage during their 25-game surge. Brooklyn also committed 17 turnovers and were held to just 16 points in the fourth quarter.

D’Angelo Russell scored 25 points while Shabazz Napier came off the bench to add 20 in extended minutes due to Dinwiddie’s recent thumb surgery. The former UConn floor general has averaged 19 points per in his last two games. The fiery sparkplug hasn’t shot well from the field, but nonetheless has done a terrific job of drawing contact and making his way to the free throw line (15-of-18 from the charity stripe). The Bulls would be wise to keep Napier out of the paint this evening and force him to get his points out on the perimeter where he’s shooting 39.6% from the field for the year.

Brooklyn’s turnaround season is primarily due to fifth-year point guard D’Angelo Russell. The former Ohio State All-American comes in averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 assists, while his starting backcourt mate Joe Harris posts 13.2 points while shooting a blistering 46.4% from behind the 3-point arc.

Second-year, 20-year old starting center, Jarrett Allen, has also become an impact player this season. The 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft ranks 11th in the league in shooting (57.2%) and 12th in blocks (1.5). So far he’s posted a team-high 16 double-doubles, which is also second-most in the league for a player 20-and-under. Overall Allen contributes a solid 11.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 27 minutes per night.

As for the Bulls, they come into this evening having lost three straight and 13 of their last 14. To give themselves a shot at turning the tables and coming out on top they’re going to need to do a far better job of getting and keeping all five players involved in the action at both ends of the court.

Offensively Chicago cannot employ a succession of ball-stopping, one-on-one battles. The ball must freely skip from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force Brooklyn’s defense to burn energy and open up driving lanes to the hoop. Whenever a path to the rim does open, the Bulls need to aggressively go on the attack and finish the play strongly at the rim.

Chicago also needs to be wise in limiting turnovers. They have to avoid risky and lazy passes that can easily get picked-off and fire up the Nets’ already potent offense.

Another important defensive factor will be limiting Brooklyn’s opportunities at the 3-point arc. The Nets currently rank 5th in 3-point attempts (34.4), and 5th in makes (12.4). The first offensive option Brooklyn looks to employ is to fire away from behind the arc. Chicago simply cannot allow them open looks from the arc, especially Harris. If the Bulls are slow to react and properly defend the arc, the game will likely get out of hand in a hurry.

As a team, Chicago also must take command of the boards get into transition as often as possible. The Bulls’ roster is blessed with a great deal of speed and athleticism, and thus it’s long past time the team begins to exploit its strength and minimize its weakness. From the opening tip until the final buzzer, Chicago has to commit to outworking and outhustling the Nets in every way possible.