Keys to the Game: Bulls at Trail Blazers (01.31.18)

Tonight the Bulls tipoff a three-game West Coast road trip with a stop in Portland the take on the Trail Blazers. In the first meeting between the two at the United Center back on New Year's the Blazers edged the Bulls, 124-120, in overtime. All five starters for both teams scored double-digits led by Portland's CJ McCollum's game-high 32-points. Kris Dunn steered Chicago's attack with 22-points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists.

For the Blazers, this evening's contest is the second of a back-to-back set of games, as last night they took down the LA Clippers, 104-96, at Staples Center in LA. Per usual, Portland's leading man was 6'3 point guard Damian Lillard, who shot almost exclusively from long range (6-14 FG, 5-10 3Pt, 11-11 FT) in recording 28-points to go along with seven assists, four rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot in 34 minutes. Over his last 10 games, the three-time All-Star has been red-hot, averaging 27.4 points while shooting 50.6% from the field while handing out 7.2 assists.

Speaking of red-hot, the Blazers are shooting for their eighth home win in a row tonight, and seventh victory over their last nine games overall. Chicago, on the other hand, is hoping to snap a four-game losing streak after falling Sunday afternoon to Milwaukee, 110-96. Unfortunately the Bulls won't receive any help from Dunn this evening as he will miss his sixth straight game due to a concussion, while rookie Lauri Markkanen will also skip tonight's contest as he's back in Chicago dealing with a personal matter. On top of that, as of this writing, there is also good chance Nikola Mirotic could also be out of action.

As tall of an order as it is, it's still possible for Chicago to get back on track tonight. However, to do so they need to aggressively charge out of the gates and stay focused throughout the entire evening. Too often of late the Bulls have started slow and fallen behind by 10 or more by the end of the opening quarter. It's going to take a concerted effort from everyone to change the team's recent course. Collectively, they have to hit the hardwood with a hard-nosed attitude, and commit to outhustling and out-executing Portland in every possible way.

The Bulls are at their best when they consistently push the ball up the floor and attack the basket early before the defense is able to get set. They also have to spread out offensively, stationing shooters all along the 3-point arc so that the defense is compelled to come out from under the basket. The ball must be generously shared, getting and keeping everyone on the court involved in the action on every possession. The ball has to jump from player-to-player, skipping from one side of the floor to the other to force the defense to scramble and expend extra energy.

Another important factor the Bulls need to accomplish this evening is to aggressively drive the ball deep into the paint to create defensive breakdowns and confusion. Every Chicago player should continuously move about, darting in-and-out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc to help generate open lanes to the hoop. With Dunn out of the lineup, Chicago has to get a strong effort from his primary backup, Jerian Grant. The veteran point guard has to set a fast pace from the start in directing the action. But Grant isn't the only one who needs to show up, as Chicago's going to need big games out Zach LaVine, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez, as well.

Both the Bulls and Blazers are strong on the boards. Chicago ranks 6th overall with an average of 44.9 rebounds a game, while Portland is close behind in the 8th spot at 44.8. An important key this evening will be which team controls the glass. So far the Blazers have gone 21-9 (13-3 at home) whenever they match or outrebound an opponent, while the Bulls are 9-8. Another important aspect worthy of attention is bench scoring. The Bulls' reserves have outscored their counterparts in six of the last eight contests. Chicago currently ranks 8th in bench scoring with an average of 40.3 points off the pine whereas the Blazers sit 25th, getting just 28.7 points out of their backups.

In short, the Bulls are going to need to hit the floor running right from the opening tip and stay aggressive throughout the entire evening. It's vital they establish a fast pace right away and keep everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor. The Blazers have certainly been on a roll - especially at home - but they did have to travel from LA late last night and are facing the second half of a back-to-back set of games. Offensively, the Bulls have scored 100 or more in nine-straight games and the Blazers are just 11-16 whenever an opponent hits the century mark. If the Bulls can ignite their attack early and stay aggressive throughout, keeping everyone involved while also playing free and loose, they'll give themselves a legitimate shot of pulling off an upset.

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