Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. 76ers (02.22.18)
Tonight the Bulls and the Philadelphia 76ers tip-off the post-All-Star portion of the 2017-18 season. The teams split the first two get-togethers, each winning at home. Tonight's contest will be the last time they meet this year.
Boosted by a season-high tying five-game winning streak, Philly comes in sporting a record of 30-25, the franchise's best won-loss mark this late into a season since 2001. They currently sit as the 7th seed in the East, 1.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat, but just two back of Washington for the 4th seed. Of the remaining 27 games left on their schedule, 17 are against teams with losing records. However, beginning this evening eight of their first 10 are on the road. Frankly the Sixers haven't found a lot of success while traveling. Coming into tonight they've lost four straight road games, and are just 12-15 away from home.
That being said, Philadelphia has caught every NBA fan's attention due to the emergence of two budding stars in Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons. Embiid had been forced to battle a number of injuries during his first three seasons in the league. The 7'0" center made it onto the court only 31 times out of a total of 246 regular season games prior to the start of this season. However, this time around he's answered the bell in 44 of Philly's 55 games. The Cameroon native who attended Kanas for just one season is averaging a team-leading 23.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
Simmons, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has also been spectacular, averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game. The 6'10" playmaker leads all rookies with 22 double-doubles, and has even recorded six triple-doubles on the year. His combination of size and athleticism allows him to work his way into the post and carve out space on a regular basis, regardless how physical opponents attempt to defend him.
As a team, Philly is difficult to keep in check. They rank 9th in scoring (107.5 points per game), and 3rd in assists (25.6). Off the glass, they've been equally tough, ranking 4th in offensive rebounding (11.0), 1st in defensive rebounding (35.9) and 1st in overall rebounding, collecting 47.0 per game.
In order to give themselves a shot of coming out on top tonight the Bulls are going to need to establish themselves as aggressors right away. Collectively, Chicago must hit the hardwood with an unbending attitude, and demonstrate the will to outwork the Sixers in every way possible.
The Bulls are at their best when they create a fast pace, consistently pushing the ball up the floor and attacking the rim early before the defense has time to set-up. To truly be effective they also have to spread out, placing shooters all along the 3-point arc so that the defense is forced to come out from under the basket. The ball has to generously be shared, jumping from player to player and from one side of the floor to the other, keeping everyone involved on every possession.
Another important factor for Chicago will be to persistently drive the ball deep into the paint and make their way to the free throw line. Every Bull on the court should be active - there should be no standing around - they must endlessly dart in-and-out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc and be willing to take the action directly to Embiid, forcing him to overreact and create confusion for Philly's team defense. Look for point guard Kris Dunn to play a major role tonight as the 6'4" playmaker's gritty, hardnosed personality at both ends of the floor frequently ignites Chicago's offense.
Another key player for will certainly be fourth-year guard Zach LaVine, who looks to have found his groove after missing the first half of the season while rehabbing a torn left ACL suffered last year. The 22-year old wing has hit his stride, averaging 19.1 points, 4.6 boards, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals over his last nine games.
In short, the Bulls have to come out of the gates fast and play with an edge. It's vital they establish a fast pace and keep everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor.
Simply put, Chicago must show up with a hardnosed attitude, and commit to outhustling and outmuscling the Sixers in every way imaginable.