Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pacers (12.30.16)

The Chicago Bulls (16-16) head down I-65 South to Indianapolis for a rematch this afternoon with the Indiana Pacers (15-18) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Bulls and Pacers battled down the stretch this past Monday evening at the United Center, where Chicago ultimately survived a poor shooting performance (32-for-83, 38.6%) for a 90-85 victory. Dwyane Wade led the Bulls with 21 points, and Niko Mirotic came off the bench to add a season-high 20 — including a key basket with less than 22 seconds left to play — to help snap a three-game losing streak.

This afternoon’s matchup will be the fourth and final regular season contest between the Bulls and Pacers. Chicago has won two of the three that have already been played, both at home at the United Center. The Pacers, however, are strong defenders of their homecourt, having won 11 of 16 this season.

In the only series game played in Indy, the Pacers hit the gas right out of the blocks and completely throttled the Bulls, 111-94, on November 5. That night Indiana made a season-high 12 three-pointers and forced 18 Chicago turnovers in a contest that was never all that close, as the game was tied only once (2-2). Pacers point guard Jeff Teague led Indy’s attack with 21 points, while CJ Miles came off the bench to score 20 points, making four 3s. Big man Myles Turner contributed 16 points and four blocks, and Pacers All-Star Paul George chipped in 13 points and seven rebounds.

A major key to this afternoon’s contest will be which team comes out fast and focused right from the start. The Bulls hit the hardwood riding a two-game winning streak after knocking off both the Pacers Monday and Brooklyn Wednesday, which has brought Chicago back to .500 on the season. The Pacers, on the other hand, are in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the last of which ended up being a 111-105 loss in Washington Wednesday. Indiana now sits three games below .500, their lowest mark of the season.

In the last game played between these two teams, Chicago converted 16 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points, while the Pacers were only able to post 3 second-chance points on 10 offensive boards. Chicago also converted 16 Indiana turnovers into 19 points while the Pacers could only muster 7 points off 12 Bulls miscues.

Another aspect worth watching this afternoon will be which team takes command of the paint. The Bulls enter this afternoon’s game the league leader in overall rebounding with an average of 48.0 per game, while Indiana is 24th at 42.5. Chicago is also the NBA’s top team on the offensive glass with a mark of 13.7, while the Pacers sit 27th at 8.7 per game. Chicago’s impressive window supremacy has also led them to be the league’s top squad in second-chance scoring, averaging a stellar 16.4 points a game.

In Monday’s battle against the Pacers, Chicago not only outrebounded Indiana, 47-41, they also outscored them, 40-32, in the paint. But when the Pacers prevailed at home in early November, it was Indiana who outscored the Bulls down low, 44-36, even though Chicago won the board battle, 40-36. So far this season the Bulls are 8-3 whenever they outscore an opponent in the paint, and are 15-9 whenever they outrebound a foe.     

Offensively, the Bulls have proven tough to beat whenever they push the ball up the floor and continuously attack the rim. Conversely, whenever Chicago slows down their offense unfailingly goes stale. Thus for the Bulls to stay on track and keep the Pacers stuck in the mud, they have to fully commit to crashing the boards hard at both ends of the floor this afternoon, as well as look to get out in transition as often as possible. It is vital that every Bull on the floor stay focused and engaged as to what’s going on. By establishing a fast and relentless pace throughout the entire game, Chicago will impose heavy pressure on Indy’s defense, which will unavoidably breakdown as the game goes on. Chicago’s playmakers must keep the ball on the move, skipping it freely from player-to-player and from side-to-side, incessantly looking to make the extra pass to find an open man, who then must convert, be it from outside or at the rim.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago’s team defense simply can’t afford many mental breakdowns. Basically, they can’t lose sight of shooters set up along the arc, nor can they lose sight of the ball and/or forget to rotate over to provide sturdy help-defense near the rim. Collectively, the Bulls cannot allow Indiana, and Paul George in particular, open looks at the basket. Every pass and every shot Indy attempts has to be challenged.

The team that shows up this afternoon with the most energy, focus and fire will come out on top.

- Anthony Hyde