Keys to the Game: Bulls at Raptors (04.08.21)

The Chicago Bulls are back in action tonight, this time down in Tampa, Florida to take on the Toronto Raptors in their temporary home off the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Tip-off from Amalie Arena is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago and WSCR-AM 670.

In Chicago's last game, center Nikola Vučević took full advantage of the Indiana Pacers missing big man Domantas Sabonis (sprained left ankle), and starting pivot, Myles Turner, after Turner was forced to exit in the third quarter due to injury. Vučević dominated all over the floor, posting game-highs of 32 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Bulls to a 113-97 road victory.

The win was Chicago's second in a row after a six-game losing streak, moving the Bulls within a game of the Pacers for the 9th seed in the Eastern Conference. Vučević also had five assists while shooting 14 of 29 from the field. Chicago's Zach LaVine also enjoyed a great night on the hardwood. The first-time All-Star added 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while veteran Thaddeus Young chipped in 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists against his former team. Lauri Markkanen and Coby White each produced solid efforts off the Chicago bench, contributing 15 and 13 points, respectively.

Caris LeVert led the Pacers with 20 points and six rebounds. Edmond Sumner and Jeremy Lamb each scored 15 points as Indiana lost for the ninth time in their last 10 home games.

Tonight, the Raptors complete a four-game homestand by hosting the Bulls. This game was originally scheduled for Feb. 28th but was postponed in accordance with the NBA's Health and Safety Protocols.

However, the Bulls and Raptors did get together in Chicago a little over three weeks ago where rookie Patrick Williams scored a career-high 23 points to help lead Chicago to a 118-95 victory at the United Center. Prior to that game, Toronto had beaten the Bulls 12 straight times.

Similar to Indiana, it looks as if Toronto will be shorthanded this evening, as a total of six players, including starters Kyle Lowry (right foot infection) and Fred VanVleet (left hip flexor strain), as well as 6th man Rodney Hood (right hip flexor strain) and key reserve Patrick McCaw (left knee swelling), have been declared out of action. However, there is still a lot of talent on the Raptors' roster.

Forward Pascal Siakam is set to answer the bell tonight and he comes in averaging 20.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Siakam's frontcourt running mate, OG Anunoby is averaging a career-best 14.6 points and shooting a blistering 39.4% from deep, also a career-high.

Gary Trent Jr., acquired from Portland at the trade deadline late last month, is also a talented player who not only provides offensive punch, but plenty of grit on the other side of the ball. In his last five games, Trent Jr. is averaging 19.4 points while shooting 46.2% from behind the three-point arc.

The most important key for Chicago every game is to show up focused and locked in at both ends of the floor. Defensively, the Bulls have done a terrific job of defending the three-point line this season. The Bulls rank No. 2 in the league in holding opponents to just 11.3 three-pointers a game, and they're No. 6 overall in allowing a rather ordinary 35.1% from deep.

As a united group, Chicago must buckle down defensively by refusing free passage through the paint and deny Toronto opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

As for offense, in order for the Bulls to run like a well-oiled machine, the ball has to freely skip from player-to-player. Quick and relentless passing forces defenses to scramble, overreact, and oftentimes breakdown and foul. Free-flowing passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim for easy scores and high percentage shots and floaters in the paint.

With the recent addition of 6'11 big man, Nikola Vučević, the Bulls have adjusted their offensive attack a bit, looking to punch the ball down low more often these days compared to relying heavily on perimeter shooting, as they did earlier this season.

Vučević gives Chicago a very effective and efficient scoring weapon at the hoop. Besides owning a deft shooting touch near the iron, Vučević is able to step outside and knock-down treys from behind the three-point arc. Thus, defenses cannot afford to keep their big men under the basket whenever Vučević leaves the paint and sets up behind the arc.

When Vučević moves outside and his defender follows, the middle opens for Chicago's guards and wings, Zach LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Thaddeus Young, in particular, to slash to the hoop for easy layups and extra trips to the free throw line.

This is another major reason the Bulls have to play unselfishly. They must constantly look to skip the ball fast and free among themselves. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the action is absolutely vital to achieving success.

The bottom line comes down to this: If the Bulls play with a feisty attitude and carry that defiance throughout the night by outhustling and outworking the Raptors, battling through every screen, going hard after every rebound and diving for every loose ball, they'll give themselves a terrific chance to post a third straight win against an important Eastern Conference foe. Every game Chicago plays from here on out will have playoff implications. Defeating the Raptors for the second time will give Chicago an important tie-breaking edge.