Keys to the Game: Bulls at Trail Blazers (11.15.16)

Tonight the Bulls (6-4) visit the Portland Trail Blazers (7-4) at the Moda Center to begin a two-week, six-game road trip.

The Blazers are off to a strong start behind two-time All-Star point guard Damian Lillard (30.7 PPG, 4.6 APG and 5.0 RPG) and backcourt running mate, C.J. McCollum (22.1 PPG, 3.1 APG and 4.3 RPG). Lillard is one of four in the NBA averaging at least 30 points a night, while McCollum has been every bit his equal over the Blazers’ last few contests. The fourth-year sharpshooter out of Lehigh has gone for 37, 33, 31 and 21 points in four of Portland’s last five games, and has shot an outstanding .505 from the field and .424 from three-point range during that span.

Last time out Lillard scored a game-high 32 points, and the Blazers overcame a 17-point first half deficit at home to post a 112-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets. The victory marked Portland’s 5th in its last 6 games and third straight at home. All five Blazer starters scored in double figures.

As for the Bulls, Chicago comes in looking to stretch a two-game winning streak to three after defeating the Miami Heat, 98-95, in South Florida last Thursday, and then taking down the Washington Wizards, 106-95, Saturday at the United Center.

Chicago is in the midst of a particularly hectic stretch, as tonight marks the Bulls’ ninth game in two weeks’ time. So far, they have proven tough to beat when they start fast. Thus in order to have a chance this evening the Bulls will need to hit the hardwood sporting a gritty attitude from the jump. Collectively, they will have to be in attack mode the entire time, as the Blazers are an extremely talented and deep group.

A major key will be the Bulls’ ability to take command of the boards. Heading into this evening Chicago ranks 2nd in the NBA rebounding (47.7), whereas Portland is tied with Utah for dead last (41.2). The Bulls have been especially strong on the offensive glass, leading the league with a mark of 13.6 per game. Overall, Chicago is out-rebounding foes by 6.5 boards a night, and outscoring them in second-chance points, 164-121, ranking third in with an average of 16.4 second-chance points per game.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they push the ball up the floor and skip it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to thrive, the ball has to hop and not get stuck in anyone’s hands. Nobody can simply stand around and over-dribble or watch what everyone else is doing. Everyone has to stay active and engaged.

The Bulls are most effective when they aggressively attack the rim and force the opposition to foul. As a team, Chicago has done an excellent job of getting to the free throw line and cashing in this season. They have outscored opponents at the charity stripe 205-126 and have banked 20 or more foul shots in over half of its games. They rank 9th in free throw attempts (24.9) and 2nd overall in free throw shooting (.823).

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has been nothing short of brilliant when it comes to drawing fouls and living at the line. The sixth-year swingman is off to a blistering start averaging a career-high 24.3 points per game. He is tied for 5th in the NBA in made free throws (8.3), and 5th in free throw attempts (9.3). Over the Bulls’ last five games, the two-time All-Star has shot an absurd 47-of-52 from the stripe (.904).

Chicago’s primary task is to hit the hardwood with purpose by coming out fast and strong at both ends of the floor from the opening tip. As a team, they must do a great job of communicating and pay close attention to where everyone is on the floor. They especially have to focus on shutting down Lillard’s ability to run in the open court. Chicago’s transition defense will be a major factor in determining the outcome of tonight’s game.

From start to finish, the Bulls’ attitude must be tenacious. They can’t be out-hustled, especially when it comes to rebounding and defense. They have to try to force Portland to slow down and not give the Blazers open paths and free looks at the rim. Every shot and pass they attempt can’t go unchallenged. Chicago also can’t lose sight of either Lillard or McCollum, especially when they start to hover around the arc, as both will make the Bulls pay dearly if they are left alone.

Beating Portland on the road is unquestionably a tough assignment, but it’s not impossible. The Bulls have to continue to be unselfish with the ball. They need to keep crashing the boards and relentlessly look to get out on the break themselves and force the Blazers to expend extra energy. If they accomplish most, if not all of these goals, there’s a good chance they could come away with an impressive victory over a very worthy opponent.