Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Cavaliers (03.24.21)

The Bulls welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers to town this evening for the first of three get togethers set for this season. The longtime Central Division rivals will battle a second time here at the United Center on April 17th and close the series in Cleveland on April 21st.

After dropping the first game, Chicago turned the tables by winning three straight to claim last year's series against the Cavs, 3-1.

In what turned out to be the Bulls' final game of the 2019-20 season, Chicago defeated Cleveland, 108-103, at the United Center on March 10, 2020. The following day the NBA shut down due to a global pandemic. When the league restarted in July inside an NBA imposed bubble at Disney World, both the Bulls and Cavs were left home as neither team sported a top 22 won-loss record.

In the fourth and final game last year, Coby White made the first start of his career and led Chicago's attack with 20 points. It was White's ninth straight game of scoring 19-or-more. Wendell Carter Jr. chipped in with 17 points, while Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine and Otto Porter Jr. each scored 15. Chicago out-rebounded the Cavaliers, 46-35, and knocked down 12 3-pointers in defeating the Cavs. Collin Sexton led Cleveland with 26 points.

In their last 10 games the Bulls are 4-6 thanks to dropping three of their last four. Over this 10-game stretch Chicago has averaged 109.7 points, 47.3 rebounds, 26.6 assists, six steals and 4.7 blocks a game while shooting 45.9% from the field. However, opponents have been a little better as they've put up 111 points on 47.4% shooting.

In their last game Monday, the Bulls fell to the league-leading Utah Jazz, 120-95, in the first of two meetings between the teams. Chicago found success on the offensive glass, securing 14 offensive rebounds, surpassing their season-average of 9.3 and coming one rebound shy of matching their season-high.

Led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are formidable defensively, surrendering an average of only 49.4 points in the paint. However, the Bulls did a terrific job of challenging Gobert near the rim as they notched 62 points in the paint. The Bulls also made a slight impact from the free-throw line, hitting 11of 12. Yet, as aggressive as they were in driving the ball into the paint and attacking the rim, earning just 12 trips to the stripe simply isn't enough.

As for Cleveland, they've won four of their last 10, averaging 103.4 points, 43.2 rebounds, 22.4 assists, 8.1 steals and 4.5 blocks while shooting 45.2% from the field. Opponents, on the other hand have put up 109.2 points on 47% shooting.

The Cavs are led by guard Collin Sexton who has scored 20+ points in 28 of the 38 games he's played this season. He comes in tonight averaging a career-high of 24.0 points, while shooting 47.8% from the field and handing out 4.3 dimes in 35.9 minutes.

In the four games against the Bulls last season, Sexton shot 60.0% (36-60) from the field and 47.1% (8-17) from deep while averaging 22.0 points.

Guard Darius Garland is another impressive offensive weapon with the Cavs. The second-year former Vanderbilt playmaker averaged 21.5 points and 5.5 assists in Cleveland's last four games. On the season, Garland is the Cavs' second leading scorer with a mark of 16.4 points a game while shooting 44.4% from the field and a very impressive 39.6% from downtown. He also leads the team with 5.8 assists in 33 minutes a night.

A Cavs newcomer thanks to an earlier in-season trade, big man Jarrett Allen, has also made quite an impact in the Cleveland lineup. The 6'11 center arrived earlier this season from Brooklyn and has recorded 10 double-doubles in his last 16 games, averaging 14.1 points and 11.8 rebounds during the stretch.

This evening is the start of a four-game road trip for the Cavs, while it marks the final home game for the Bulls before they embark on a four-game, Western Conference swing of their own with stops in San Antonio, Golden State, Phoenix and Utah.

For the Bulls' offense to be successful the ball has to freely skip from player-to-player. Persistent and decisive passing habitually compels defenses to overreact, and in time, fall apart. Quick sharing of the ball also helps to free up driving lanes to the rim and gain clean looks for shooters stationed outside.

Chicago must sidestep the trap of slowing things down and turning towards an isolation tactic where one player goes after his defender one-on-one. Selfless sharing of the ball with constant movement in and out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc will generate an efficient and potent offensive assault.

The Bulls must also do a far better job of taking care of the ball, keeping turnovers to no more than a dozen. The best teams don't carelessly toss the ball away when an opponent applies pressure. However, this season the Bulls have been one of the NBA's worst in this area. That must change, and tonight would be a perfect opportunity to turn the page.

Defensively, Chicago needs to run shooters off the 3-point line. So far, they've limited foes to just 11.3 made 3-pointers a game, and a very ordinary 34.6% make rate.

Besides shutting down the arc, the Bulls must also buckle down in the paint and do whatever is necessary to keep Sexton and his teammates firmly in front of the defense and away from the rim. As a team, the Cavs currently rank 1st in the East and 3rd in the NBA in points in the paint with an average of 53.8. Cleveland has scored 60+ paint points on 11 occasions this season, which is the team's best mark over the last 20 years.

Achieving both of these goals would give the Bulls the ability to control the pace of the game and also give them a number of chances to run out on the break to post easy scores.

If Chicago shows up to work tonight with an aggressive mindset and sustains that intensity for all four quarters, they'll give themselves a shot of posting an important victory over a longtime rival.