Keys to the Game: Bulls at Nuggets (01.17.18)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls visit the Mile High City to close out the season series, as well as a bruising five-game Western Conference road swing against the Northwest Division leading Denver Nuggets (29-14).

Denver defeated the Bulls in an overtime thriller the first time they met on Halloween at the United Center, 108-107. Nikola Jokic posted 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, while sharpshooting teammate Gary Harris chipped in 16 points, five rebounds and two dimes. Zach LaVine led Chicago with 28 points and seven helpers.

The last time the Nuggets took to the home hardwood on Tuesday they received a punch to the nose from Golden State, 142-111. The two-time defending NBA Champs morphed into the Harlem Globetrotters that night, setting an NBA-record of 51 points scored in the opening quarter.

That's probably as good as it'll ever get for any team as the Warriors connected on 60 percent of their shots, including hitting 21 treys (10 in the first quarter). Denver's Malik Beasley was his team's high scorer with 22 points, while running mate Jamal Murray notched 21. Jokic struggled with foul trouble for most of the game, but still finished with 17 points and eight assists in 23 minutes.

As for the Bulls (10-34), they come into tonight carrying the heavy baggage of an ugly eight-game losing streak. The hits keep coming for Chicago as this evening they'll be without the services of rookie starting center Wendell Carter Jr. after he sprained his left thumb against the Lakers the other night. Prior to getting hurt the 19-year old had notched six points and pulled down 10 rebounds. It was the ninth time this season Carter had recorded double-digit rebounds. He's currently listed on the team's injury report as day-to-day, but he'll definitely skip tonight, and most likely Sunday's matinee against Miami back home at the UC.

As for the Lakers game itself, it was a pretty competitive affair for the first 28 minutes, but halfway through the third quarter and into the early part of the fourth, LA went on a 14-0 run to assume command. However, thanks to Jabari Parker (18 points) and fellow reserves Shaquille Harrison (10 points) and Ryan Arcidiacono (12 points, two steals), the Bulls were able to rally late, pulling within five at 103-98 in the final minute, but LA prevailed in the end, 107-100.

For Chicago to put an end to its current skid they're going to have to bury the past behind them and hit the floor this evening spitting fire and focused from the opening tip. Denver is a well-balanced squad capable of scoring inside and out. They also love to grab the ball off the boards and sprint out on the break to post easy, fast scores. Their current starting backcourt of Beasley and Murray may not be household names, but both are capable of putting points on the board in a hurry. Beasley recently has been filling in for starter Gary Harris at shooting guard, and as mentioned above, posted a team-leading 22 points against Golden State the other night. He did so while shooting 6-of-10 from the 3-point arc, and he presently leads the Nuggets in made 3s (79) while shooting an impressive 41.4% from distance. Harris is expected to rejoin the lineup soon, but not tonight. Thus the Bulls will need to make sure Beasley isn't allowed to roam free behind the arc where he can quickly and easily ignite Denver's potent offense.

Murray is Denver's second-leader scorer at 18.5 points. The former Kentucky Wildcat has recorded 20+ points in five of the Nuggets' last 11 games and is also shooting 45.8% from behind the arc over their last 10.

The true center of attention when it comes to Denver's firepower is Jokic. Earlier this week against Portland, the 6'10” center posted a season-high 40 points to go along with 10 rebounds and eight assists in recording his 28th double-double this season. The 23-year old Serbian has also completed four triple-doubles, and 21 over his four-year NBA career. And besides being the Nuggets' leading scorer (19.7), Jokic also leads them in assists (7.5).

For Chicago to keep pace they're going to have to be physical with each of these players. Defensively they cannot leave any of them alone, especially behind the 3-point arc. A defender must stick close by at all times.

Offensively, the Bulls look to grind the shot clock down to just under five seconds every possession before attempting a shot. To achieve any success, Chicago will need to force Denver to chase and battle through an endless number of screens while also focusing their attention to defending both the perimeter as well as the paint. Every Chicago on the court will need to freely move about and stay focused at the task at hand. To generate open looks at the basket the Bulls have to force the defense to scramble and cover a lot of ground. Freely sharing the ball will also get and keep everyone involved in the action.

To that end Chicago's primary ballhandlers, especially starting guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, as well as swingman Chandler Hutchison, and to an extent power forwards Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis, must have an aggressive mindset and be willing to relentlessly take the action to the rim in order to draw contact and make their way to the free throw line for easy scoring opportunities.

As a team, Chicago also needs to crash the boards hard, and go after every missed shot and loose ball as if its life depended on it to slow Denver's craving to run. From the opening tip until the final buzzer, the Bulls have to commit to outworking and outhustling the Nuggets in every possible way.