Keys to the Game: Bulls at New Orleans (01.14.17)

In a rare Saturday afternoon contest, the Chicago Bulls (19-21) host the New Orleans Pelicans (16-24) at the United Center in the Pels’ only trip to the Windy City. The Bulls come in hoping to get back on track after suffering three straight losses, while New Orleans hits town riding a two-game winning streak after thumping both the New York Knicks (110-96) and Brooklyn Nets (104-95) in Gotham City earlier this week.

The flu bug has literally ruled Chicago of late, as All-Star Jimmy Butler became so ill he had to leave early in the third quarter of last Monday’s loss to OKC, and has yet to return to the floor. Butler was soon followed out the door by Niko Mirotic, who also unexpectedly was forced to dive under the covers and stay in bed Tuesday in Washington and was also too sick to play Thursday in NYC. Then rookie Denzel Valentine came down with the flu and couldn’t answer the bell against the Knicks, just two nights after enjoying a breakout game against DC where he put up a career-high 19 points, including hitting five treys in 30 minutes of action. The Bulls are hoping both Butler and Mirotic will be able to play this afternoon, but Valentine’s availability is still up in the air.

So far this season Chicago has often found success when they charge out of the blocks from the opening tip and play fast throughout all 48 minutes of the game. In order to right their ship this afternoon, the Bulls will once again have to hit the hardwood with a gritty mindset and look to run from the jump.

Another key factor as to whether or not the Bulls are going to have a good day is how they do on the boards. Currently they lead the league in rebounding with an average of 47.4 per game, while New Orleans isn’t bad on the glass either, ranking 8th with a mark of 44.6.

Primarily due to Windy City native Anthony Davis, who not only is 2nd in the NBA in scoring (29.1), but is also a top 10 rebounder (6th, 12.2), New Orleans has proven to be a hardnosed defensive force. The Pels currently rank 2nd in blocks (5.9) and are 4th in contesting shots, challenging an impressive 68.6 field goal attempts per game. New Orleans is also averaging 16.3 deflections per, which is 7th in the league.

Davis, a 6’11”, 23-year old power forward from the West Side, anchors the paint for the Pels, as he’s logged 25 double/doubles in 37 games so far, and he also ranks a close second in the league in blocks, swatting 2.51 shots a contest.

A window of opportunity looks open for the Bulls today with regards to offensive rebounding, as Chicago is head and shoulders above the rest of the league, snaring 13.7 offensive missed shots while New Orleans is mired near the bottom at No. 28 with just 8.6 per.   

A key advantage to being a strong offensive rebounding team is that your crew is able to post easy baskets via put-backs. Chicago has taken full advantage of their ability on the offensive window as they enter this afternoon the league leaders in second-chance scoring at 16.4 points per game.

Since the Bulls are not a particularly good perimeter shooting team, taking advantage of second-chance scoring opportunities has helped them stay in a number of games. So far they have gone 16-13 whenever they outscore their opponent on second-helpers, and they are 17-11 whenever they control of the glass.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be effective when they aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. The ball must hop freely and not wind up stuck in anyone’s hands for more than a couple of beats. Every player has to buy into the concept and stay fully engaged as to what’s going on in front of them.

This afternoon the Bulls are going to have to spread out in order to space the floor and draw defenders away from the rim. At that point, if/when a path opens to the basket, Chicago will need to go on the attack and aggressively take the action to the iron, forcing New Orleans’ defense to scramble and foul.

As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of making their way to the free throw line this season. Heading into today’s game, Chicago has outscored opponents, 764-560, at the charity stripe. To break it down further, the Bulls have shot 20 or more free throws 23 times this season, which is by far the most in the league. Over their last six, the Bulls have averaged a little over 24 free throw attempts per game and have shot 128-of-147 from the line (87.1%).

In short, Chicago’s primary task this afternoon is to come out fast, strong and passionate at both ends of the floor. They need to relentlessly apply pressure throughout all four quarters of the game. From the opening tip to the final horn, it’s imperative that they play with a chip on their shoulder and prove tenacious in every possible way. The Bulls need to take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and in turn they cannot allow New Orleans too many opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores. Over their last eight games, the Pels have outscored opponents 132-87 in transition, averaging 16.5 fastbreak points a game. So obviously, hustling back on defense is a must for the Bulls this afternoon.

To get back on track, Chicago simply can’t afford to lose focus in any way, shape or form.

—  Anthony Hyde