Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pistons (05.09.21)

The Bulls hit the road for the second to last time as the 2020-21 season rapidly heads down the stretch to a close. Chicago is making its final trek to Motown to take on the Detroit Pistons, closing the book on the season series against their longtime Central Division rivals.

The Bulls won each of the earlier contests, 105-102 at the United Center in mid-February and 100-86 on March 21st in Detroit. Chicago comes into tonight having won six in a row against the Pistons dating back to sweeping the season series last year.

In the middle game of this current three-game set, All-Star Zach LaVine recorded a team-high 18 points, and forward Laurie Markkanen posted 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds as Chicago delivered a stout defensive performance in shutting down the Pistons.

Although Chicago trailed for most of the opening two quarters, they used a late run to take a 46-45 lead at the half. The Bulls hit 6-of-10 (60%) from downtown in the opening half while holding the Pistons to 2-of-10 (20%) behind the bend.

Chicago expanded its lead to 11 during the first five minutes of the third and continued to shut down Detroit's outside shooting as the Pistons went 1 for 7 from behind the line, falling to 17.6% for the game. The Bulls outscored the Pistons, 29-20, in the third to lead 75-65 heading into the final frame. It was more of the same in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls continued to control every aspect of the game, ultimately winning, 100-86.

Most Improved Player frontrunner, Jerami Grant, scored 26 points for the Pistons, who previously had won two in a row before running into the Bulls that day.

Tonight's tip-off from Little Caesars Arena is at 7:00 p.m. CT. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Chicago or if you're not near a TV, tune into the Bulls' flagship station, WSCR AM 670, beginning at 6:45 for the pregame show.

Tonight's contest is the second of a back-to-back for Detroit, as they were in Philadelphia to take on the 76ers last night and fell, 118-104. The Pistons have now lost five of their last six games.

The Bulls on the other hand come into tonight looking to post their third straight win after blowing out Charlotte and Boston back-to-back on Thursday and Friday. Against the Hornets in Charlotte, Chicago ran away with a 120-99 victory and followed it up with a 121-99 thumping of Boston at the United Center. Zach LaVine and Coby White each scored 25 points and Nikola Vučević posted his fourth career (and second this season) triple-double with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. The win over Boston has pulled Chicago within three games of Indiana for the final spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament with only five left to play.

Chicago's defense has been terrific during this stretch, holding both Charlotte and Boston to under 100 points and limiting them to 42.2% and 40.7% shooting, respectively.

The Bulls also won the battle of the boards in each contest, 56-45 vs. the Hornets, and 52-47 against the Cs. They have also continued doing a great job of sharing the ball and finding the open man, totaling 33 assists against Charlotte and 26 against Boston.

The Bulls also hit from deep these last two games, torching the twine from behind the arc at 48.6% against Charlotte (18/37) and 45% against Boston (18/40).

Chicago comes into tonight fairly healthy with only reserve guard Troy Brown Jr. (left ankle sprain) listed on the injury report.

To continue riding this wave of momentum, it's absolutely vital Chicago continues to do a great job of helping each other out defensively, communicating, rotating when needed and staying in front of their assigned man when Detroit has the ball in its hands. As a unified front, the Bulls need to command the paint from the opening tip and force the Pistons to adjust on the fly.

Offensively, nothing really needs to change, as the Bulls must continue to freely pass the ball from player-to-player and skip it from side-to-side. Swift, persistent passing, coupled with constant ball and player movement puts pressure on the defense to respond, and if the pressure persists throughout the game, defenses frequently fall apart and often needlessly foul. Free and easy passing also frees up driving lanes through the paint and allows for high percentage shots at the rim.

For the Bulls to sweep the season series against the Pistons tonight they have to storm onto the hardwood with an aggressive attitude and play with an edge for all 48 minutes. They have to commit to one another that they will battle at both ends of the floor. They have to stay focused, poised, and also be stubborn. They need to fight their way through screens (and not slip under). They need to make the Pistons understand right from the opening tip that they're on a mission and not simply playing out the string of a long season.

Chicago must sport this mindset every game from here on out. Including tonight, the Bulls have only five games left on their schedule, and longshot or not, they're still in the hunt to qualify for the postseason. If the Bulls apply this approach, they'll keep their playoff hopes and aspirations alive for another day.