Keys to the Game: Bulls at Nets (04.08.17)

This Saturday afternoon the Chicago Bulls (39-40) look to keep their playoff hopes alive when they visit Brooklyn to tip-off against the Nets (19-60) in the third of four meetings scheduled this season. Chicago won both of the earlier matchups, the first on Halloween at the Barclays Center, and the second at the United Center on December 28th. The Bulls and Nets will get together again Wednesday in Chicago to close the 2016-17 season — a contest that could very well end up determining whether or not the Bulls make the playoffs.

Chicago enters the contest in a fairly good mood after posting a much-needed victory in Philadelphia Thursday evening. Beating the 76ers has the Bulls sitting pretty as the 7th seed in the East with just three games left to play. And although Chicago and Indiana sport the same won-loss record, with the Miami Heat just a half-game behind each (as of this writing), Chicago possess tie-breakers over both the Pacers and the Heat.

Like the Bulls, Brooklyn also hits the hardwood feeling pretty good about themselves of late due the fact that they’ve won three out of their last four games, and since March 1st, they’re 10-11, whereas previously their record stood at 9-49.

Defensively, it looks as if the Nets have turned some kind of corner as they’ve held five of their last 10 opponents to under 100 points after doing so just five times in their first 69 games. They’ve also recorded 10+ steals four times over their last 10, and forced 20+ in three of those contests. In fact, since March 21st, Brooklyn’s overall defensive rating (99.8) ranks third in the league. They’re also third in opponent field goal percentage (42.8%) and fifth in opponent three-point field goal percentage (31.1%) during this stretch.

Veteran Jeremy Lin has caught fire in the past week, putting up averages of 21 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. The high-powered playmaker out of Harvard is someone Chicago is going to need to keep close tabs on this afternoon, as Lin registered a season-high 32 points and connected on a season-high five 3s the other night against Orlando.    

A major key to today’s game will be which team takes command of the paint. Chicago continues to rank near the top of the league in overall rebounding, entering No. 3 with an average of 45.9 per game. However, Brooklyn also does solid work on the boards, as they’re 11th, pulling down a very respectable 43.8 boards a night.

But, when it comes to cleaning the offensive glass, Chicago has separated themselves from the rest of the pack all year long. Currently the Bulls own an NBA-best mark of 12.2 offensive rebounds per game, whereas the Nets sit near the bottom at No. 26 (8.7).

Chicago’s offensive rebounding prowess has also steered the Bulls into leading the league in second-chance scoring (15.2 ppg), which obviously has helped them stay afloat this season.

Under first year head coach Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn has become more of a free-wheeling offensive squad. This year’s bunch really likes shooting the long ball, as they average 31.6 attempts behind the arc per game, the fourth most in the league. They also rank 5th in long distance makes, hitting an average of 10.8 a game. However that wide-open style has also led Brooklyn to being one of the league’s worst turnover teams (No. 29 at 16.6 per game) and the owner of the league’s second-worst mark in point differential (-6.4), as they give up an average of 112.6 points a game.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven time and again to be at their best when they push the ball up the floor and continually look to attack the rim. Conversely, whenever Chicago has established a slow, deliberate pace, their offense unfailingly grinds to a halt. Thus in order for Bulls to stay on track, everyone must stay focused and engaged.

It’s vital the Bulls relentlessly crash the boards at both ends of the floor this afternoon and look to run as often as possible. By putting pressure on Brooklyn’s defense in keeping the ball on the move and constantly looking to make the extra pass, Chicago can accomplish a number of positive things.

On the other side of the ball, defensively the Bulls can’t afford mental breakdowns. Simply put, they can’t lose sight of shooters along the arc, nor can they lose sight of the ball or forget to rotate in providing solid help-defense.

Collectively, Chicago needs to reinforce its blue-collar identity and not allow Brooklyn open looks at the rim. Every pass and every shot the Nets attempt this afternoon must be contested in order for them to come away with a very important victory.

—   Anthony Hyde