Keys to the Game: Bulls at Nets (05.16.21)

The Bulls' 2020-21 season ends this evening with a third and final contest against the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center. Both teams are completing a back-to-back set of games after Chicago fell short in Brooklyn yesterday afternoon (105-91) and the Bucks defeated Miami (122-108) last night in Milwaukee.

The Bucks are currently third and the Heat sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, which would have them meet in the first round of the playoffs. But neither is locked into those positions heading into today's NBA regular season finale.

Milwaukee could still earn the East's No. 2 seed if they beat the Bulls and the Brooklyn Nets lose at home to Cleveland. Miami could slide into the No. 5 spot if it beats Houston, and the New York Knicks lose at home to Boston.

The Bulls' defense has been solid lately, but it'll need to be great against the Bucks who lead the league in scoring with an average of 120.2 points a game. Milwaukee's also the NBA's best rebounding team, averaging a whopping 48.2 per game. The Bucks' efficiency has also been on point this year, as they've connected on 49% of their overall shots, and 39% from downtown.

If the Bulls are going to avoid being swept for a third consecutive season (Milwaukee sports a 12-game winning streak over Chicago), they'll need to aggressively defend the 3-point arc, as well as fight for every rebound at both ends of the floor and force the Bucks to play a half-court, slower-paced game.

To accomplish these tasks the Bulls will need to effectively communicate, quickly and smoothly rotate defensively when needed and always stay between their man and the basket whenever Milwaukee has the ball.

Offensively, Chicago has done a terrific job of playing unselfishly, generously sharing the ball and bouncing it from side-to-side this season. The Bulls rank 6th in assists with an average of 26.8 per game and have recorded 30 or more 19 times this year. Quick, persistent passing, coupled with nonstop player movement places a great deal of pressure on the defense to react and adjust. If the pressure continually intensifies as the game moves forward, coverage mistakes and defensive cracks begin to pop up. Continuous passing and relentless player movement also opens up driving lanes through the paint and allows for high percentage shots at the rim.

For Chicago to corral the Bucks this evening, they'll need to be hardnosed and keep that attitude going for all 48 minutes of the game. They'll need to be focused, poised, and resilient, especially after Milwaukee looks to speed up the pace by running out on the break and firing shots from behind the three-point arc.

Yesterday in Brooklyn, the Bulls played without All-Star Zach LaVine (right knee tendinitis), forward Daniel Theis (right hip), wing Troy Brown Jr. and guard Tomáš Satoranský (sprained left ankles). As of this writing, it's unclear if any will return to the hardwood tonight. And although the Bucks could use another victory to secure better playoff positioning, there's also a chance they could decide to sit some of their stars and regulars to gain a little extra rest before the playoffs begin next weekend. However, games like today's still carry meaning and offer an opportunity for those who do play to open eyes and continue to improve their all-around skills going forward.