Keys to the Game: Bulls at Timberwolves (04.11.21)

The Bulls are in action once again tonight, this time in Minneapolis, tipping-off a back-to-back set of games. First up are the Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by a trip down to Memphis, Tennessee tomorrow to meet up with the Grizzlies, ending a hardscrabble five-games in seven days road trip.

Tip-off this evening from the Target Center is set for 7:00 p.m. CT, and you can catch the game on NBC Sports Chicago or on radio at WSCR-AM 670.

It didn't take more than three minutes for Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine to extend his double-digit scoring streak to 95 games (tying Orlando Woolridge for the third-longest streak in franchise history) Friday against the Atlanta Hawks. LaVine finished with a career-best 50 points, although only 11 came during the second half, when Atlanta outscored Chicago, 67-42, to soar past the Bulls, 120-108. The disappointing loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Chicago, who led for most of the contest.

LaVine, who set the NBA high for points in the first half this season with 39, scored 25 straight points during the second quarter. However, the Hawks refused to wave a white flag, as they not only were able to keep the score close most of the time, but they also eventually passed the Bulls to take a two-point lead (86-84) entering the fourth quarter.

It appeared Chicago was going to reclaim momentum after LaVine completed a layup to put the Bulls back up 88-86 with 11:07 remaining. But Atlanta's Danilo Gallinari drilled a straightaway 3-pointer at the 5:48 mark, and suddenly the Hawks were soaring again. Star guard Trae Young fed center Clint Capela for an alley-oop dunk two possessions later to make the score 104-101 in favor of the Hawks.

Another straightaway 3-pointer from the hands of Gallinari and a bank shot by Young put Atlanta ahead 111-103 with 3:26 to play. After a Chicago timeout the Bulls turned the ball over, and almost immediately the Hawks took a comfortable 10-point lead on another Capela dunk with just 2:42 remaining in the game. Gallinari followed with another trey, this time from the left wing to put Atlanta up 116-106, extending a 19-4 Hawks run, putting an end to any doubt remaining as to who was going to win the game.

Trae Young finished with 42 points, while Clint Capela recorded a double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds. Bulls center Nikola Vučević posted a double-double of his own with 25 points and 10 rebounds. It was Vučević's fourth double-double in eight games with Chicago since arriving at the trade deadline.

Minnesota comes in tonight looking to bounce back after blowing a 17-point third quarter lead over the Boston Celtics on Friday, losing, 145-136 in overtime.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was lights out in posting a career-best 53 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter and overtime, to lead Boston to victory. Minnesota's power trio of Karl Anthony-Towns, D'Angelo Russell and 2020 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, each enjoyed big offensive nights. Anthony-Towns led the Timberwolves with 30 points and 12 rebounds, while Russell finished with 26 points and Edwards added 24.

Minnesota forward Josh Okogie also tallied a season-high 16 points, three rebounds, four steals and one assist.

Entering today, Minnesota owns the NBA's worst won-loss record at 13-40. Despite that fact, the most important key for Chicago today, and every day, is to show up for work focused and locked in at both ends of the floor.

Defensively, Chicago has done an excellent job of patrolling 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 5th overall in allowing a somewhat ordinary 34.9% make rate from deep. But besides effectively guarding the three-point arc, the Bulls must also tighten up defensively down low, denying effortless passage through the paint, and prevent Minnesota from gaining momentum with easy put-backs and numerous chances to run out on the break for unchallenged scores. As a united group, Chicago needs to seize control of the paint and the backboards, forcing the Timberwolves to live far from the basket and take only contested shots out on the perimeter.

Offensively, in order for the Bulls to take control of the game, the ball has to freely hop from player-to-player. Quick, persistent ball movement forces defenses to overreact, scramble and oftentimes commit unnecessary fouls. Free-flowing passing also makes it easier for driving lanes to open, allowing attackers to finish at the rim with dunks and other high percentage shots.

With the recent addition of Nikola Vučević, Chicago has adjusted its offensive scheme by looking to get the ball into his hands down low more often compared to earlier this year, when the team relied heavily on their guards' perimeter shooting skills. Vučević gives Chicago one of the league's most effective and efficient scoring weapons near the hoop. Besides having a nifty shooting touch at the iron, Vučević is very capable of stepping outside and knocking down three-pointers behind the arc. This skillset makes it impossible for opponents to anchor their big men under the basket to protect the rim.

Once Vučević moves outside and establishes his shooting range, his defender will have to abandon the paint and begin to shadow him far from the basket. That will make it easier for LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and to an extent, Thaddeus Young, to cut to the hoop for layups, and with any luck, pick up some extra trips to the free throw line.

This is another reason why the Bulls must play unselfishly. The ball needs to skip fast and free among all five players on the floor. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the action is absolutely vital.

This year's Bulls have done an outstanding job of sharing the ball, especially during the last eight games. Chicago's dished 25+ assists in all eight contests, a feat last accomplished in November 1992.

It all comes down to this, for the Bulls to be successful they must play with an aggressive mindset and carry that brashness throughout the night. They have to be willing to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way possible. That involves fighting their way through screens, going all out for every rebound and diving to the floor for every loose ball. If they achieve most (if not all) of these targets this evening, they should end up as the last team standing when the final horn sounds. Including tonight there are only 20 games left in this 72-game shortened season. Without a doubt, every remaining game has real playoff implications.