Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pacers (01.06.18)

Tonight the Bulls close the book on a back-to-back set of games after departing Dallas late last night in visiting the Hoosier State to take on the Indiana Pacers in the two teams' fourth and final get-together this season. The Pacers captured Games 1 and 2 of the series, the first a 105-87 blow-out in Chicago in early November where they connected on 12 3-pointers and outscored the Bulls 20-6 in transition. A rematch ensued three weeks later down in Indianapolis where once again the Pacers came out on top in a raucous come-from-behind 98-96 victory. Chicago dominated the paint in that second contest, outscoring the Indiana 44-26 down low to run out to what seemed to be a comfortable 17-point lead in the second half, but the Pacers simply wouldn't quit and roared back with a 29-13 outburst in the final stanza, capped by a clutch Victor Oladipo 3-pointer with 30 seconds left to steal a victory.

However the next time these longtime Central Division rivals met took place just eight days ago on December 29th at the United Center where rookie Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic combined for 60 points to lead the Windy City crew to a 119-107 victory. The Bulls hit 18 3-pointers, as Markkanen set a career-high with 32 points, while Mirotic added 28 by going 8-for-15 from long distance.

Indiana comes into tonight mired in a five-game losing streak, yet they're still in fairly good shape with a 19-19 mark on the season, plus this evening tips-off a much needed four-game homestand for the Blue & Gold.

The aforementioned Oladipo ranks 10th in the league in scoring with an average of 24.9 points, but the former Indiana University All-American has been forced to sit on the sidelines over the Indy's last four games due to a gimpy right knee. However there's a good chance he could find his way in the lineup tonight, which obviously would give the Pacers a boost. If he does play, Chicago's Justin Holiday will likely draw the unenviable assignment of shadowing Oladipo, who has notched 20+ points in 24 of 33 appearances this season, including seven of 30+ points.

Led by Oladipo, the Pacers boast six players averaging double-digits. Thus Chicago can't afford to focus all its energy on Indy's leading man and fail to pay attention to the rest, especially when it comes to Myles Turner (13.9 PPG and 6.6 RPG), Bojan Bogdanovic (13.8 PPG, 47.1 FG%, 38.8 3FG%), reserve power forward Domantas Sabonis (12.0 PPG, 53.1 FG%, 8.0 RPG), Thaddeus Young (11.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG), as well as primary playmaker Darren Collison (12.5 PPG, 5.6 APG). Overall, the Pacers rank 10th in the NBA in scoring (106.8), 4th in shooting (47.6%), tied for 2nd in 3-point shooting (38.3%)

Defensively, the Bulls will need to step up their focus and intensity by staying tied together and keeping the lines of communication open. Chicago's guards will have to pressure the ball while everyone sticks close to their assigned man to make it tough for Indy to slip into a comfort zone.

A primary key for the Bulls is to wrestle control of the boards at both ends of the court — especially so at the defensive end — as doing so will inevitably lead to fastbreaks and easy scoring opportunities.

Chicago's offense is designed for everyone to be involved in the action. Thus for it to click the ball must freely be shared and jump from one side of the court to the other to force the defense to scramble. It's also important they not rush or launch quick, contested shots, or fall into a trap of playing a slow, deliberate pace where the ball ends up stuck in one player's hands while everyone else stands around and watches. The Bulls must stay focused and poised by steadily establishing a free-flowing rhythm while also taking good care of the ball.

Thus whenever Chicago is on offense look for them to get the ball down the court quickly and spread out, stationing shooters evenly along the arc to draw Indiana's defense out from under the basket. Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba and Justin Holiday will then need to aggressively drive the ball into the paint to create chaos. If the Pacers adjust by sliding down to trap or double-team, those Bulls attackers have to make an adjustment of their own by locating an open teammate on the perimeter and get him the ball for a uncontested shot.

In short, Chicago's task is to aggressively hit the hardwood from the opening tip and never slow down. In order to create open looks, the ball has to unselfishly jump from side-to-side and player-to-player. As team the Bulls need to show up sporting a hardnosed mindset, and commit to outhustling the Pacers in every way imaginable. Hustle isn't a derivative of talent, but rather it's the foundation of a blue collar work ethic and a personal willingness to lay everything on the line to come away with a victory.