Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pistons (03.06.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (31-31) hit Motown to take on the Detroit Pistons (30-32) in the third of four games scheduled this season. The teams split the first two powwows, each successfully defending their homecourt. The season series will conclude at the United Center later this month.

With just 20 games remaining for both the Bulls and Pistons, tonight’s contest carries significant weight as Chicago currently sits as the 7th seed in the East, a game ahead of Detroit, who occupies the conference’s 8th and final playoff spot. If the standings stay the same, Chicago would meet Boston in the opening round, a team they have already beaten twice, while Detroit would go against the defending NBA Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept them in the opening round last spring.

Detroit hits the court riding momentum after punishing Philadelphia in the City of Brotherly Love, 136-106, Saturday. The 136 points they fired up is the most they have scored in a little over nine seasons. Chicago, on the other hand, can’t seem to get off the roller-coaster it’s been on all year long. Following an exciting victory over Golden State Thursday, the Bulls fell 101-91 to the Los Angeles Clippers at the United Center Saturday night. Chicago started hot, running out to a 61-55 lead at the half, but then stumbled and staggered the rest of the way, allowing LA to outscore them, 46-30, the rest of the way to lose a very winnable game. Sloppy ball-handling (19 turnovers), shoddy shooting (42.2 FG %) and a complete lack of defensive focus cost the Bulls dearly. If they are to get back on track tonight, more than a few things will need to go right and maybe a couple of unexpected things, too.

Chicago will take to the floor somewhat shorthanded, as Dwyane Wade has been ruled out with a leg injury and backup point guard Rajon Rondo is listed as questionable with a sprained ankle. In their place, the Bulls are going to need help off its bench. Rookie Paul Zipser is set to take Wade’s spot in the starting lineup, and it is expected fellow rookie Denzel Valentine will also see extended minutes. Newcomer Cameron Payne, a second-year point guard recently acquired from Oklahoma City, should also see plenty time behind the wheel backing up Jerian Grant.

In any event, when things are going well for the Bulls it’s usually because they’ve come out of the gates fast. Thus, in order to right the ship, Chicago will need to push the pace at every opportunity. They have to come to work with a gritty, blue-collar mindset.

A primary key as to just how competitive the Bulls are going to be on any given night is how they do on the boards. Currently Chicago is a tick behind Denver and Oklahoma City for the overall league lead in rebounding, grabbing 46.3 a game (Denver - 46.5, OKC – 46.4). However Detroit also does a pretty good job on the window as they’re 5th, pulling down 44.9 caroms per night.

Chicago’s rebounding is strictly a team effort, as they don’t have anyone listed within the league’s top 20. However Detroit has a true Chairman of the Boards on its roster in 6’11” Andre Drummond, a fifth-year pivot out of UConn. Drummond sits in the top five of all three major rebounding categories — offensive (4.2, T-1st), defensive (9.7, 3rd) and total rebounding (13.9, 2nd). He also ranks 5th in the league in double-doubles (42), and four times this season he’s recorded 20-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in a game.

As for offensive rebounding, the Bulls have been extremely effective this season. Currently they rank 1st, snatching 12.6 offensive boards per game, and in turn they also lead the NBA in second-chance scoring, posting an impressive mark of 15.6 points a night. Since they aren’t a particularly good outside shooting team, being able to score via put-backs has helped Chicago stay competitive and also win a number of games this season.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their most effective when they regularly push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago’s offense to click, the ball has to hop and not wind up glued onto anyone’s hands for too long. Everyone on the court has to be active and engaged. The proof is in the pudding as they come into this evening averaging 108.6 points, 49.5 rebounds and 23.1 assists per victory, and just 96.5 points, 43.1 rebounds and 20.2 assists per loss this season.

To this end, Chicago has to routinely spread out and space the floor while at the same time look for opportunities to attack the rim. As a team, they have done an outstanding job of forcing opponents to foul and send them to the free throw line. So far the Bulls have attempted 339 more free throws and made 301 more charity tosses than their foes.

Chicago’s principal assignment tonight is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls have to play with a proverbial chip on its shoulder, and refuse to back down in any way, shape or form. Their bigs must do whatever they can to contain Drummond and not allow him to dominate the paint. The Pistons have won 10 of their last 13 at home, and over this stretch they are putting up 110.8 points while shooting a very solid 46.1% from the field. Detroit also does a great job of taking care of the ball, as they rank 3rd in the league in the least amount turnovers per game (11.6 / Chicago is 11th at 12.9 per game.)

Defensively, the Bulls have to communicate and stay tied together. They must constantly hustle back on defense, and collectively, they need to shut down all paths to the basket. As a team, it is vital they look to reinforce their blue-collar identity and not allow Detroit’s quick-footed point guards, in particular Reggie Jackson (14.8 points, 5.4 assists) and Ish Smith (10.3 points and 7.7 assists in his last three games) opportunities to drive the ball into the paint and find open shooters on the wing.

A thorough team effort at both ends of the floor will go a long way to staying a couple of steps ahead of the Pistons in the standings while also keeping the Bulls in good shape for possible a return to the postseason.

—    Anthony Hyde