Keys to the Game: Bulls at Nets (05.15.21)

The Bulls close out the road portion of the 2020-21 season with a visit to Brooklyn, NY this afternoon. Today's game is the rubber match of a three-game series between the Bulls and the Nets, as the teams split the first two contests.

Brooklyn walked away the winner the last time the teams met earlier this week in Chicago, 115-107. Kevin Durant led the way with 21 points and eight assists, while Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine exploded for 41 points, his fifth 40+-point game this year.

The Nets jumped out to an early lead and comfortably led for most of the game as Chicago struggled to knock down their shots. Trailing 93-74 entering the 4th quarter, LaVine directed a furious Bulls rally to bring Chicago within shouting distance with a couple of minutes left to play, but Durant and veteran forward Jeff Green converted on key buckets down the stretch to thwart Chicago's late charge.

The Nets posted 32 assists with just eight turnovers that night, marking the fourth time this season they registered 30+ dimes and single digit miscues. Defensively, Brooklyn held the Bulls to 40.4% from the field.

Besides LaVine's heroics, Coby White chipped in 16 points and Nikola Vučević recorded his ninth consecutive double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Chicago defeated Brooklyn by the same score, 115-107, tipping-off the three-game season series in early April. Vučević posted a double-double of 22 points and 13 rebounds while LaVine scored a game-high 25 points. Kyrie Irving notched 24 points and 15 assists to lead a short-handed Nets squad, which played without stars James Harden and Kevin Durant, both of whom were sidelined with injuries that day.

Today, Brooklyn is expected to be at full strength as Durant, Irving and Harden are scheduled to take the floor together for just the eighth time this season.

After missing 18 games and 20 of his last 21 since the start of April, Harden returned Wednesday against San Antonio. The former league MVP totaled 18 points, seven boards and 11 assists in 26 minutes off the bench. On the season Harden's averaging 25.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 11.0 assists and 1.3 steals in 35 games after landing in Brooklyn from Houston in an early-season trade.

Chicago's defense of late has been solid, but it'll need to be great against the high-powered Nets, who despite not having their "Big 3" available to play together for most of the year still average 118.7 points a game, good for No. 2 overall in the league.

If the Bulls are going to knock-off Brooklyn for a second time they'll have to fiercely defend the 3-point arc, as well as take full advantage of their overall size and strength under the basket. They'll also need to continue supporting each other by effectively communicating, rotating when needed and staying in front of their man whenever the Nets have the ball.

Offensively, the Bulls have also done a fantastic job this year of sharing the ball and freely skipping it from side-to-side. Chicago ranks 5th in assists with an average of 26.9 per game and has recorded 30 or more helpers 19 times this year. Quick, unrelenting passing, coupled with continuous player movement puts pressure on the defense, and if the pressure grows as the game moves forward, coverage mistakes occur more often as cracks begin to develop. Non-stop passing and unrelenting player movement also helps to open driving lanes through the paint and deliver opportunities to take high percentage shots at the rim.

For Chicago to take down Brooklyn a second time they'll have to be very aggressive and carry that attitude with them for all 48 minutes. They'll need to be focused and poised, especially after the Nets get on a roll and begin draining shots from all over the floor.

The Bulls will have to tenaciously defend their basket and constantly talk while fighting over and through screens. Lastly, Chicago cannot allow Durant, Harden and in particular, Joe Harris, who leads the NBA in 3- point shooting (47.5%), space to fire shots from behind the 3-point arc without at least having a hand in their face, and an elbow in their gut.

Although the Bulls were officially eliminated from the postseason last night after Washington defeated Cleveland, they still have plenty to play for these final two games.