Keys to the Game: Bulls at Sixers (01.24.18)

Tonight the Bulls close out a three-game road swing with a visit to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers in the second of three get-togethers between the two this season. Chicago won the first match, 117-115, on December 18th at the United Center. Niko Mirotic and Kris Dunn each hit big shots down the stretch as Chicago rallied to catch and pass Philly late in the fourth quarter for the win. Mirotic came off the bench to post 22 points and 13 rebounds, while Dunn chipped in 22 of his own and dished six assists to direct the Bulls to a then-team best sixth straight victory. Dario Saric proved to be the biggest puncher for the Sixers with a game-high 27 points, while rookie Ben Simmons notched a triple-double of 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

The Bulls caught a break when Philadelphia decided to leave Joel Embiid at home to rest since the first powwow was the first of a back-to-back set of games for the Sixers. The oft-injured 7-footer had played 49 minutes and scored 34 points in a triple-overtime loss to OKC a couple of nights prior, so management opted to play it safe by giving their budding superstar the night off.

Outside of Golden State and Houston there isn't another team in the NBA that seems to excite fans more than this year's 76ers - and we're talking about a squad that's just a game above .500 (22-21)!

The Sixers have caught everyone's attention due to the emergence of Embiid and Simmons. Embiid had been plagued by injuries in his first three seasons, finding the court just 31 times. So far, however, he's been able to answer the bell in 34 of Philly's 43 games and was recently named an Eastern Conference starter for the 2018 All-Star Game. The Cameroon native is averaging a team-leading 23.8 points, 11 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

Simmons has also been spectacular, averaging 16.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game. The 6'10" playmaker - that's right, he's a point guard - leads all rookies with 18 double-doubles, and has even recorded 4 triple-doubles this season.

As a team, Philly has proven difficult to slow offensively. Overall, they've scored 100+ points in 10 of their last 11 games and 34 of 43 overall. They rank 7th in scoring (108.2 points per game), and 3rd in assists (25.8). Off the glass, they've been equally tough, ranking 3rd in offensive rebounding (11.2) and 1st in overall rebounding, collecting 47.4 per game.

The Sixers enter tonight looking to bounce back after falling 105-101 Monday in Memphis. They led most of the game and had even built a seemingly comfortable 15-point lead late in the third before ultimately surrendering. Costly fourth quarter turnovers sealed the deal, as Philly coughed the ball up a total of 24 times, including 10 during the game's final 12 minutes. The Grizz pounced on the opportunity, outscoring the Sixers 31-18 in the final stanza. Dario Saric paced the Sixers with 22 points and 10 rebounds, while French import Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot connected on 6-of-8 from downtown to notch a season-best 20 points. Robert Covington connected on four 3s himself, en route to 18 points, while Embiid added 15 points and 14 boards. Simmons had a somewhat pedestrian game, registering just 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 7 assists.

As for the Bulls, they too are looking to get back on track after a heartbreaking 132-128 double-overtime loss to New Orleans down in the Big Easy the other night.

Pelicans All-Star DeMarcus Cousins proved too much to handle for Chicago as the veteran big man put up 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists. Cousins became the first NBA player since Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 to have as many as 40 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a game.

The Bulls were without starting point guard Kris Dunn for the second game in a row as he was back in Chicago trying to recover from a concussion suffered last week. Jerian Grant filled in for Dunn and produced 22 points and 13 assists, while Robin Lopez added another 22 to the cause. Zach LaVine poured in 19 points and rookie Lauri Markkanen recorded a double-double of 14 points and 17 rebounds.

To get back on track this evening the Bulls, who once again will be without the services of Dunn, will need to attempt to establish themselves as the aggressors right away. Collectively, Chicago has to hit the hardwood with an unbending attitude, and demonstrate the will to outwork the Sixers in every way possible.

Offensively, the Bulls need to spread out, stationing shooters all along the 3-point arc to draw Philly's defense away from the basket. It is also important they freely share the ball with each other, getting and keeping all five players on the floor involved in the action. Another important key is to stay calm whenever Philly's defense attempts to up the ante by getting physical. The Bulls can't afford lose control of their emotions, but rather they need to zero in and focus on the task at hand in order to catapult themselves to the next level.

For the Bulls' offense to run smoothly the ball has to hop from player-to-player, jumping from one side of the floor to the other, which in turn will force the Sixers to expend extra energy. Chicago also has to seize every opportunity to drive the ball deep into the paint to create confusion for Philly's defense, with everyone continuously darting in-and-out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc.

In short, Chicago must come out of the gates quickly and stay aggressive throughout the entire evening. It's vital they establish a fast pace in order to keep everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor. The Bulls have to show up with a hard-nosed attitude, and commit to outhustling and outmuscling the Sixers in every way.

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