Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. 76ers (03.24.17)

Hey baby, it’s getting late!

With just 10 games left with a possible playoff berth in their sights, every day until the end of the season will be the ultimate game of Survivor for the Chicago Bulls (34-38). This evening the West Siders need to outwit, outplay and outlast a very young and hungry Philadelphia 76ers (26-45) squad, one that is hell-bent on playing the role of spoiler.

Although the Sixers have lost 12 in a row to Chicago, including six straight at the United Center, and have already been eliminated from the postseason, tonight’s contest won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, as over their last six games the Sixers have gone 3-3. In fact, earlier this week Philly upset the Atlantic Division leading Boston Celtics, 105-99.

Philadelphia’s bench provided 43 of those 105 points, as every back up scored at least eight that night. The Sixers also notched 36 points from beyond the arc against the Cs, shooting a pretty respectable 12-of-33 from distance. Rookie Dario Saric posted a team-high 23 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished four assists and stole the ball two times. The 6’10” Croatian leads all rookies this season in points (12.6) and rebounds (6.3).

The Bulls hit the hardwood one game back of the Miami Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. But with Dwyane Wade (fractured right elbow) out of the lineup for at least the rest of the regular season, Chicago’s path to the playoffs certainly won’t be stress-free. However, there is some good news this evening as Robin Lopez is back in action after sitting out Chicago’s 117-95 spanking of Detroit the other night.

Lopez received a call from the Commissioner’s office just before the Pistons game informing him that he was receiving a mandatory night off after getting into a scuffle 24 hours earlier with Toronto strongman Serge Ibaka. Lopez, who hadn’t missed a start up until that point, has been a strong and steady presence as Chicago’s man in the middle. The veteran seven-footer comes in averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 28 minutes this season, but since Wade’s injury, Rockin’ Robin voluntarily has stepped in to help fill some of the void by firing up his production, averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks over his last three games.

Tonight is the third time the Bulls and Sixers have met this season, and as mentioned earlier, Chicago owns a 12-game winning streak over Philly. In the first two get-togethers, the Bulls took care of business rather easily, first in the City of Brotherly Love, 105-89, and later back home at the UC, 121-108. All-Star Jimmy Butler scored 12 of his 28 points from the free throw line in that second game, as Chicago outshot the Sixers from the charity stripe 23-10. Lopez also had a big night, posting 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Chicago’s bench provided a lot of punch as well, outscoring Philly’s reserves 49-15.  

Usually a pretty good indication as to how well the Bulls are playing is just how hard they are crashing the boards. Currently Chicago ranks third in the league in rebounding (45.9), just behind Denver (46.3) and Oklahoma City (46.3). However, the Bulls are the NBA’s No. 1 offensive rebounding team, grabbing 12.3 a night, which is also a major reason why they lead everyone in second-chance scoring (15.4) this season.

Offensively, Chicago has proven time and again that they are at their best when they consistently run the ball up the floor while also making sure it jumps from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When the Bulls speed up the pace and share the ball with each other, the scoreboard has a tendency to light up. For example, Chicago is 19-7 whenever they dish the most assists in a game, and for every victory this season they are averaging almost 109 points scored and 24 assists, compared to 97 points and 20 assists for every loss.

Also, in order for the Bulls’ offense to flow they need to consistently space the floor. Although they won’t win many jump-shooting contests, placing shooters all around the three-point arc forces defenses to abandon the paint, which in turn grants opportunities for guards to aggressively attack the rim and get fouled. As a team, the Bulls have done a fantastic job of getting to the free throw line. So far they have attempted a total of 1,663 free throws and connected 1,323 times from the charity stripe, while opponents have only tossed 1,351 free throws (+312 in favor of Chicago) and have hit just 1,039 lobs (+284 also in favor of Chicago).

In that vein, Jimmy Butler has taken his game to another level by regularly attacking the basket and making his way to the charity stripe. As of this evening, Butler ranks 4th in the NBA in free throw attempts (8.96) and 4th in free throws made (7.7). He’s also scoring a career-high 23.4 points a night while also shooting a career-best 87.0% from the line.

In short, Chicago’s mission is to come out fast and forceful at both ends of the floor. It’s important that they take control of the boards from the beginning. With so few games left and the playoffs in reach, the Bulls simply cannot afford to relax or take anything for granted. If Chicago fails to grab a rebound, it’s important they hustle back defensively, otherwise the Sixers could easily take command of tonight’s game by turning it into a track meet. Defensively, the Bulls need to be quick, decisive and aggressive.

Outwit, outplay and outlast — that has to be the Chicago Bulls’ mantra from here on out.

— Anthony Hyde