Keys to the Game: Bulls at New York (01.12.17)

The Chicago Bulls (19-20) and the New York Knicks (17-22) get together for the second of three times this season in a nationally televised clash at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks won the opening get-together, 117-104, in Chicago on November 4th. Kristaps Porzingis led the way with 27 points and Carmelo Anthony added 25 to help New York snap a then two-game losing streak. The night, though, truly belonged to a couple of beloved ex-Bulls, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, both of whom received loud cheers from the sold out United Center crowd during pregame introductions and once again during a video tribute played during the game’s first timeout.

Rose, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 Draft, finished with 15 points and 11 assists, while Noah, Chicago’s top pick in the 2007 Draft, added 16 points and nine rebounds. Up until that point Noah hadn’t scored more than six points in a game and had been held scoreless in two of the previous four Knicks games.

Dwyane Wade led Chicago with 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting and Jimmy Butler added 26. However, Butler won’t take the floor tonight in Gotham City as he’s back home in Chicago battling the flu, as is Bulls super-sub, Nikola Mirotic.

New York enters this evening having lost nine of its last 10 games, including a heartbreaking 98-97 buzzer-beater last night in Philadelphia.

The Knicks had led by as many as 17 points in the second quarter, but Philly stormed back on a 15-3 run to close the half and then ripped off a 13-4 run to open the third. In the end, the Sixers erased another 13-point New York lead over the final 8:49 of the game to win at the horn.

Anthony poured in 28 points for New York while Rose sliced and diced his way through the paint in putting up 25 in a losing cause.

Chicago is also coming off a tough loss after John Wall hit a game-winner with just 5.9 seconds left to lift the Washington Wizards to a 101-99 victory in DC Tuesday night. It was the second game of a set of back-to-backs for the Bulls who were missing the aforementioned Butler and Mirotic due to illness, as well as Dwyane Wade, who is scheduled to be back in the lineup this evening.

Tonight marks game No. 40 for the Bulls, and so far they have often met success when they charge out of the blocks and play fast from the start. Consequently, in order to gain revenge on New York, the Bulls will once again have to hit the hardwood with a gritty and determined mindset and look to run from the opening tip.

Another key factor as to whether or not Chicago will have a good night is how they do on the boards. Currently they lead the league in rebounding with an average of 47.7 per game, but New York isn’t far behind, ranking 4th with a mark of 45.6. Bulls starting center Robin Lopez leads the team with an average of 7.1 rebounds a game in just 28 minutes of action, followed by Taj Gibson at 7.0 boards in a tick under 28 minutes.

The Bulls, especially Lopez and Gibson, have been really effective on the offensive glass this season. Chicago leads the league with a mark of 13.6 offensive caroms per game.

A benefit of being a top rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that your squad is able to stack easy scores on put-backs. The Bulls, in particular, lead the NBA in second-chance scoring at 16.3 points per game. So with the Knicks being a solid rebounding squad in their own right, Chicago is going to need to take control of the glass at both ends of the floor this evening in order to come out of top. They are 17-11 whenever they outrebound an opponent, and 16 of their 19 victories has occurred whenever they outscore a foe on second-chance opportunities.

Offensively, the Bulls have reached their peak when they push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to be truly effective, the ball has to hop freely and not end up glued in anyone’s hands for long stretches. Every player needs to be fully engaged as to what’s going on. The Bulls are 10-2 whenever they record more assists than their opponent.

Chicago is also going to need to space the floor while at the same time eyeing opportunities to attack the rim in hopes of forcing the Knicks’ defense to scramble and foul. Over their last six games, the Bulls have made a concerted effort to spread out and unclog the paint. As a result, they are averaging 9.7 three-pointers made. Before this stretch, Chicago averaged a league-worst six treys made per game.

As a team, the Bulls have been brilliant at making their way to the free throw line each night and cashing in. They’ve outscored opponents 748-551 at the charity stripe coming into tonight’s contest. To break it down further, Chicago has tossed 20 or more free lobs 22 times this season, which is the most in the league. In fact Tuesday in Washington they did so again, as the Bulls shot a blistering 19-of-21 (90.5%) from the foul line. Over their last five games, Chicago is shooting 88.9% (112-of-126) from the stripe.

In short, the Bulls’ task is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and not slow down — ever. They have to prove to New York from the jump that nothing is going to come easy tonight. With Butler and Mirotic out of the lineup, Chicago’s bench will have to step up to fill the void. They did so Tuesday, albeit in a losing cause, outscoring Washington’s reserves, 48-16. Over the Bulls’ last three games, Chicago’s bench has averaged 44.7 points a night. Another strong and productive effort off the pine would certainly go a long way this evening. But in order to do so, collectively, Chicago has to come out hungry and in a nasty mood the moment they step off the team bus.

As mentioned earlier, the Knicks are reeling having lost nine of their last 10 games. This evening is a perfect opportunity for the Bulls to gain a little retribution from a longtime rival in front of a national audience watching at home.

 —   Anthony Hyde