Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pacers (12.04.18)

Tonight the Bulls close out a four-game road trek by traveling down I-65 South to Indianapolis to take on the Indiana Pacers for the second of four regular season games this season. The first time the two got together the Pacers rallied from an early 18-point deficit to win at the United Center, 107-105. All-Star guard Victor Oladipo led the way for Indy with 25 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Antonio Blakeney came off Chicago's bench and connected on 9-of-13 shots overall and 3-of-5 from downtown to lead the Bulls' attack with a career-high 22 points.

In search of a fresh start Chicago's brass chose to dismiss Fred Hoiberg as the team's head coach yesterday and replace him with top assistant, Jim Boylen, who inherits a 5-19 squad that sits next to last in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls, who believed they had the weapons to employ a high-powered offense at the start of the season have been anything but explosive as they rank 28th in a 30-team league in scoring at 103.4 points while giving up 113 per game. Only two other teams (Phoenix & Atlanta) possess a worse point differential than Chicago's -9.6 mark.

After spending last week out West and splitting four games, the Pacers (13-10) return home to Bankers Life Fieldhouse gunning to get back on track after back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Sacramento Kings. However nobody should get the impression those losses has positioned Indy in panic mode since just about every team would be thrilled to go 2-2 out West — especially so when they couldn't get any help out of their best player.

The aforementioned Victor Oladipo has been forced to skip the Pacers' last seven games, and will sit out again tonight with a bum right knee. In his place veteran point guard Darren Collison have stepped up nicely, while sixth man Domantas Sabonis has also made an indelible impression on the opposition.

The 6'10" Sabonis, in his 3rd NBA season (and 2nd with Indiana) has grabbed 15 rebounds in four of Indy's last seven games, and 10 or more boards eight times over the last 11. He's also currently is shooting .652 from the field, which ranks 3rd in the league.

Collison has also been impressive of late, totaling 11 points and 12 assists, as well as six steals in Sacramento on Saturday. In fact the veteran floor general has dished at least 11 dimes in three of the Pacers' last four contests.However, Indy's Achilles' heel the last two times out has been turnovers. Against the Lakers they lost the ball 17 times and followed up that sloppiness with a season-high 25 against the Kings over the weekend.

Chicago hits the hardwood tonight having lost six straight and 10 of its last 11. However there is reason for optimism thanks to the recent return of Lauri Markkanen who made his season debut in Houston on Saturday, posting 10 points in 26 minutes off the pine. The 7'0 Finn suffered a badly sprained right elbow the first week of training camp and had yet to play before Saturday. Two other key missing players are also on the mend and are expected back in action within the next week or so in point guard Kris Dunn (sprained MCL) and power forward/center Bobby Portis (sprained MCL).

As for tonight, Boylen says he's looking to get a serious commitment from each of his players to focus more on hitting the boards hard, especially at the defensive end, as well as hustling back on defense, and playing a more overall physical game. Offensively, Boylen wants his crew to implement a fast and steady pace and challenge Indiana to keep up. Having a strong presence on the defensive boards will help speed things up by igniting their attack in getting into transition early and often. Setting a fast pace also forces the opponent's defense to scramble and fall apart as they aren't afforded time to set up and close down driving lanes to the hoop.

Chicago will have to draw Indiana's defense to the perimeter by placing shooters all along the 3-point arc. In doing so they must also generously share the ball while keeping turnovers in check. Crisp and sound ball movement oftentimes forces defenses to overplay and make mistakes as the lines of communication have a habit of breaking down.

The Bulls also need to make sure everyone is involved on offense. They simply can't go at Indiana one-on-one. For them to put points on the board the ball has to dance from player-to-player and from side-to-side in order to force the Pacers to expend energy and open lanes to the hoop.

Lastly Chicago must play aggressively in every way imaginable and stay motivated and determined throughout the night. Everyone who steps onto the floor has a duty to provide energy and put their mark on the game. In order for the Bulls to succeed they must play with an edge. If they do, they'll give themselves a legitimate shot of ending up as the last team standing at the end of the night.