Keys to the Game: Bulls at Orlando (03.08.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (31-32) pay another visit to Central Florida to take on the Orlando Magic (23-41) in the third of four games scheduled for this season. The Bulls won the previous two meetings, a 112-80 thrashing at the United Center on November 7th, followed by a back-and-forth, hard fought 100-92 victory on January 24th in their first O-Town trip.

In the first contest Chicago went on a rampage from the opening tip, busting out a 15-0 run early to take a 37-24 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Bulls never looked back from that point on.

Chicago commanded the glass throughout the evening, owning a 56-39 edge, while also holding Orlando to 23 percent shooting in the second half to notch the lopsided victory.

In the second game between the Bulls and Magic, Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler proved to be the difference for Chicago down the stretch, as both took turns knocking down clutch shots to pull out the win. Wade scored seven of his game-high 21 points during the fourth, while Butler chipped in six of his 20 on the night during the same 12-minute stretch.

Orlando comes into this evening’s contest hoping to find some kind of a spark after allowing New York to rebound from a double-digit deficit to steal a 113-105 victory on the road this past Monday night. Knicks backup power forward Kyle O’Quinn played all but 20 seconds in the fourth quarter, helping drive Gotham City on a decisive 23-4 run during the final stanza to pocket the victory. Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic missed his second straight game that night due to a sore Achilles tendon, and it looks as if he’s going to be forced to sit out again tonight against the Bulls. However, Orlando did have its talented starting shooting guard, Evan Fournier, in the lineup, and he pumped in 18 points in 14 minutes during the opening half to lead the Magic to a comfortable lead at the half. The French sniper, who hit 4-of-9 from beyond the arc, ended up leading all scorers with 25 points, while his quick-footed backcourt mate, point guard Elfrid Payton, went on to post 16 points and 10 dimes in the losing cause.

As a team, the Magic have struggled during the fourth-quarter all season long. According to NBA.com, they sport the worst net rating in the league over the game’s final 12 minutes. Unfortunately, the Bulls aren’t a much better in this area, as this problem popped up in Chicago’s 109-95 loss to Detroit the other night.

The Bulls and Pistons started the fourth quarter knotted at 79, however Detroit quickly fired out of the blocks, while Chicago couldn’t get anything to go its way, and ended up losing by 14. The Bulls’ loss allowed Detroit to climb into a tie with them for the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference.

A fundamental sign as to how productive an evening Chicago will have has been how hard they compete on the boards. The Bulls currently are the No. 3 team in overall rebounding, pulling down an average of 46.2 per game, while Orlando ranks 23rd with a mark of 42.8 per game. In a breakdown of numbers, the Magic’s won-loss record stands at 10-27 when they lose the battle of the boards, while Chicago stands at 26-17 when they seize control of the glass. As for offensive rebounding, the Bulls are parked at the very the top of the league, sporting an impressive 12.6 snatches, while the Magic are 17th at 9.8 per game. Obviously a major benefit of being a strong rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that you grant yourself a number of extra chances to post easy scores from close range. The Bulls have done well in this aspect as they come in leading the NBA in second-chance scoring at 15.5 points per game. Thus, if they are active on the glass this evening, that’s a pretty good sign Chicago is going to come away a victory.

Offensively speaking, the Bulls have proven to be at their best when they consistently push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. In order for any team to succeed in the NBA, the ball has to be shared. The evidence is clear, especially when it comes to the Bulls, as the team’s won-loss mark is 16-5 whenever they record more assists than the opposition.

As a team, Chicago has done a tremendous job of regularly attacking the basket and finding their way to the free throw line, while at the same time, keeping the opposition off the stripe. So far the Bulls have attempted a total of 1,516 free throws while their opponents have attempted just 1,176 — that’s a +340 in Chicago’s favor. As for cashing in on those extra attempts, the Bulls have connected 1,211 times while opponents have knocked in only 904 free throws — a +304 in Chicago’s favor.

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of getting to the line this season. Not only is the 3-time All-Star averaging a career-best 23.9 points, but Butler ranks 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.1), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.3), while converting at a career-best clip of 87.2% from the stripe.

To sum everything up, Chicago’s job this evening is to come out fast and strong from the opening tip and never relax. The Bulls have play with an edge every time the hit the hardwood, and tonight will be no exception to that rule. They have to take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and look to run at every opportunity. The ball has to move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Everyone has to be engaged on every possession.

Overall the Bulls have to take the floor with a dogged mindset. They have to be willing to hustle back on defense and aggressively jump the passing lanes when opportunity knocks in order to disrupt Orlando’s offensive flow.

Simply put, Chicago has to get after it and stay after it all night long. If the Bulls intend to make a return trip to the playoffs, every rebound, every pass, every shot, every possession and every defensive play matters.

—    Anthony Hyde