Keys to the Game: Bulls vs 76ers (12.18.17)

Tonight the Bulls host the upstart Philadelphia 76ers in the first of three meetings set between the two this season. Outside of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, there isn't another team in the league that seems to excite every NBA fan more than this year's 76ers — and we're talking about a team with a .500 record (14-14)!

The 76ers snapped a four-game losing streak last Thursday with an overtime victory over Minnesota but then lost at home in triple overtime to the Oklahoma City the next night, 119-117. In total, Philly comes to town having lost five of their last six games, yet of the 14 victories they've posted, two were over Golden State and Cleveland.

As a team the 76ers have caught the attention of the basketball world thanks mainly to the emergence of center Joel Embiid and rookie playmaker Ben Simmons. Embiid, who had been plagued by a number of injuries during his first three seasons and had played in only 31 games up until the start of this year, wasn't expected to begin logging serious minutes this season until at least January, but he played a career-high 49 Friday against the Thunder, scoring 34 points, 8 rebounds and handing out six assists. Unfortunately the 76ers decided to keep him home tonight, declaring him out of action due to back stiffness.

Simmons, on the other hand, is expected to play and he's been nothing short of spectacular, averaging 17.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game. The 6'10" playmaker — that's right, Simmons is a 6-foot, 10-inch point guard — leads all rookies with 16 double-doubles, and has even recorded 3 triple-doubles this season.

As a team, Philadelphia has proven to be extremely difficult to slow offensively. Overall, they've scored 100+ points in 22 of their 28 games. They rank 6th in the league in scoring (108.9 points per game), and 3rd in assists (26.4). Off the glass, they've been equally tough, ranking 3rd in offensive rebounding (11.8) and 1st in overall rebounding, collecting 48.8 per night.

The Bulls hit the hardwood looking to stretch an impressive 5 game win streak to 6 after besting the Milwaukee Bucks Friday in Milwaukee, 115-109. What has been especially impressive is that Chicago has knocked-off Boston, Utah and Milwaukee the last three times out without the help of the team's regular starting power forward, rookie Lauri Markkanen (14.7 points, 8.1 rebounds), who has been sidelined with back spasms. Markkanen's availability tonight is currently up in the air as he's been tabbed a game-time decision. However, if Markkanen is unable to go Bulls fans shouldn't fret too much since Niko Mirotic has temporarily stepped in as the starter and has stepped-up — BIG TIME — averaging 25 points, 8.3 rebounds while shooting 27-of-48 (56.3%) from the field overall and 9-of-19 (47.4%) from distance during Markkanen's hiatus. Mirotic had another strong game against the Bucks, notching 22 points (nine coming down the stretch during the game's final three minutes) to go along with 8 rebounds and a pair of assists, but Chicago's other power forward, Bobby Portis, turned in an even more spectacular effort, posting a career-high 27 points and a team-high 12 rebounds, hitting 9-of-16 from the field, 2-of-5 from downtown and going 7-of-7 from the charity stripe. This was Portis' fourth 20-point game of the year and his second over the last three.

But as good as Mirotic and Portis have been of late, they aren't the only ones making things happen, as Chicago's recent streak of success has been a team effort through-and-through. For example, the Bulls' bench scored 26 of the team's first 39 points against the Bucks, and for the game they outscored their Milwaukee counterparts 48-25. A total of five Bulls cleared at least eight rebounds, and six snagged at least one on the offensive end. Chicago also outscored Milwaukee 24-13 in second-chance scoring.

To keep the victory train rolling the Bulls will once again need to establish themselves as the aggressor from the start. Collectively, when they hit the hardwood with an uncompromising attitude, and demonstrate a willingness to out-hustle and out-execute their opponent they usually come away with a win.

Offensively, Chicago needs to spread out, stationing shooters evenly along the 3-point arc to draw the defense away from the basket. It is also vital the Bulls do a good job of sharing the ball with one another, keeping all five players involved in the action.

Another important key for the Bulls is to keep their poise whenever Philly's defense attempts to up the ante and get physical. The Bulls cannot afford lose control of their emotions, but rather they need to feed off the emotion of the home crowd to catapult them to the next level.

In order for Chicago's offense to click, the ball has to freely jump from player-to-player, sliding from one side of the floor to the other, which in turn will force Philadelphia to expend extra energy on defense. As they have done so well during this current win streak, Chicago's primary ballhandlers, in particular Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, and to an extent David Nwaba, Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine, need to relentlessly go on the attack in driving the ball to the basket. Aggressively taking the action to the rim should draw fouls and send Chicago to free throw line. If Philadelphia's defense begins to abandon the perimeter and slide down to clog the paint, Chicago's ballhandlers need to adjust and pass the ball to an open sniper hovering on the arc for an uncontested look at the rim.

In general, the Bulls want to attempt between 85-to-90 shots a game, with 30-or-more coming from beyond the 3-point arc. In order to achieve those goals they must play at an aggressive, fast pace.

In short, Chicago's task is to hit the floor running from the opening tip and never let up. To create scoring opportunities, they have to share the ball and keep everyone involved. Defensively, they must show up with a hardnosed mindset, and commit to outhustling and out executing Philadelphia in every way possible.