Keys to the Game: Bulls at Raptors (02.28.21)

The Bulls find themselves surrounded by palm trees and sunny beaches today as they meet up with the Toronto Raptors at the Amalie Center in Tampa, Florida. Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Raptors are calling West Florida home during the 2020-21 season due to Canadian travel regulations.

Speaking of COVID, the Raptors recently were knocked on their heels after getting news that Head Coach Nick Nurse and five of his assistants, as well as star forward Pascal Siakam, had to quarantine due to league health and safety protocols. The Raptors were already down a coach after former assistant Chris Finch was hired to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves last weekend.

Running the team temporarily while Nurse is sidelined is veteran assistant Sergio Scariolo, who has coached at multiple high-level European clubs -- including Real Madrid -- and has been the Spanish national team's coach for more than a decade. Scariolo was at the helm on Friday when the Raptors grounded the Houston Rockets, 122-111, in Tampa.

After a sleepy opening quarter, the Raptors recognized they could take advantage of a short-handed and slumping Rockets team, as guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were able to do whatever they wanted, while fellow guard Norman Powell went off for a game-high 30 points to lead Toronto's onslaught. Lowry posted a triple-double with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists while VanVleet hit 5 of 11 from distance and was a perfect 8 of 8 from the charity stripe to score 25. Powell shot a blistering 10 of 15 from the field and a perfect 6 of 6 from the stripe.

Although Toronto didn't shoot lights out in going 40 of 89 (.449%) from the field, they did make Houston pay from deep, hitting 16 of 41 (.390%) from behind the arc, and 26 of 27 from the stripe (.963%). Defensively, the Raps held Houston to a rather pedestrian 39 of 91 (.429%) from the field and 16 of 47 (.340%) from downtown.

The victory was Toronto's fifth in its last seven games and moved their record to 17-17 (.500) on the season.

As for the Bulls, Chicago rebounded from a shaky start Saturday at home against Phoenix to take a 16-point lead two minutes into the third quarter, only to blow it down the stretch, losing to the Suns, 106-97. Devin Booker and center Deandre Ayton each scored 22, while savvy veteran point guard Chris Paul contributed 14 points, 15 assists and six rebounds. Zach LaVine once again led the Bulls' attack with a game-high 24 points, with backcourt mate Coby White chipping in 19 and veteran forward Thaddeus Young coming off the bench, posting a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. But it just wasn't enough to propel Chicago to a fourth straight victory.

Sloppy play cost the Bulls dearly, as Phoenix was able to score 10 points off 10 Chicago turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Suns also commanded the paint, outscoring the Bulls 66-44 near the hoop. They were able to run free most of the game, out-pointing Chicago 23-9 in transition.

In order for Chicago to win games, they have to turn the tables on those two fronts. Defensively, the Bulls have done a very good job this season of running shooters off the 3-point line. They did so against Phoenix, holding the Suns to 6 of 22 from deep (.273), but far too often Phoenix was able to storm the paint and extract a pound of flesh whenever they wanted, going 33 of 51 (.647) down low.

A central goal every game for the Bulls is to be aggressive and get off to fast starts, and then maintain that speedy pace all through the night.

The Bulls are blessed with a loads of youth and athleticism. When they consistently rebound the ball and relentlessly get out on the break, good things always happen.

For Chicago's offense to click, the ball must freely skip from player-to-player. Quick, purposeful passing compels defenses to overreact and breakdown. Smart, speedy passes also help free up driving lanes to the rim and generate open looks for shooters outside.

The Bulls cannot allow their offense to grind to a slow pace or allow one player to attempt to take on the defense by himself. Continuous ball and player movement, in and out of the paint and all around the arc, is crucial to establishing an efficient offensive rhythm.

In order to come out on top, Chicago needs to do a far better job of taking care of the ball and closing down the paint. They cannot allow Toronto the freedom Phoenix enjoyed Friday. The Bulls need to collectively hit the boards hard at both ends of the floor and limit Toronto's second-chance scoring opportunities to under a dozen points.

If the Bulls come out with a scrappy attitude and stampede out of the chute, they'll give themselves a shot of coming away with a win over one of the Eastern Conference's top squads.