Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Cavaliers (03.30.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (35-39) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (47-26) tip-off for the fourth and final time with Chicago looking to sweep the season series.

The last time these two hooked-up was in Cleveland back on February 25th, as Chicago shot a very unBulls-like 15-of-30 from distance to post a 117-99 upset of the defending NBA Champions. Three Bulls notched double-doubles with Jimmy Butler actually crafting a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Dwyane Wade came within a rebound of a triple-double as well, as he tickled the twine for 20 points, snagged nine boards and dished 10 assists, while Niko Mirotic blasted off the bench for 14 points and 10 rebounds.

LeBron James didn’t get to play in this particular contest due to illness, but Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving sure did as he poured in a game-high 34 points (20 during the second half) and grabbed nine rebounds while dishing a team-high seven assists. Ex-Bulls swingman, Kyle Korver, provided plenty of punch off the bench for the Cavs by contributing 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting (62.5%) from the field, including 4-of-7 (57.1%) from beyond the arc.

The turning point of the game came early in the third quarter after Cleveland had extended its lead to six (65-59) and Chicago called timeout. Nobody outside of the Bulls players can tell you what Head Coach Fred Hoiberg said in the huddle, but immediately after stepping back onto the hardwood, Chicago couldn’t miss from the perimeter and closed-out the quarter on an impressive 30-11 run to take a 13-point lead into the final stanza. Essentially from that moment on the Bulls never had to look over their shoulders as they went on to post a nifty 18-point road victory in front of a packed house of frustrated Clevelanders and a stunned national TV audience.

Although he took a sharp elbow to the back of his neck against San Antonio earlier this week, LeBron James is expected to play this evening. Had the Spurs game been closer (San Antonio won, 103-74), it’s likely he would have played more than the 30 minutes he logged Monday, yet in a little over half a game’s time James still put up 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

In two meetings against Chicago this season, the four-time league MVP has shot 58.1% from the field and averaged 29 points, 10 assists and 6.5 rebounds in 41 minutes. With the Cavs having lost four of their last six games, not to mention three straight this year to the Bulls, and four in a row if you count last season, you would have to believe the King and his court will come out focused and spiting fire this evening.

According to Cleveland bench boss Tyronn Lue, the only Cavalier sitting out tonight’s contest will be Korver who is nursing a battered left foot — otherwise it’s all hands on deck.   

Defensively, the Bulls simply cannot allow James and the rest of the Cavs the opportunity to find a comfortable rhythm. Chicago’s approach must be aggressive and inspired. They cannot allow Cleveland uncontested looks at the rim — be they from near or far — as the Cavs are averaging 110 points a game (1st in the East, 4th best in the NBA). In fact, Cleveland has hit and/or surpassed the century mark in 55 of 73 games this season and have even put up 120 or more points on 19 occasions. Their won-loss record stands at 35-6 when they score 110 or more and 18-1 when they reach or exceed 120 points.

The Cavs do most of their scoring from beyond the arc, as 35.3% of the team’s offense has come from distance this season. They’ve made at least 15 triples a whopping 24 times — a franchise record. At the beginning of March, Cleveland also established a new NBA regular season-best of 25 made 3s (shooting 25-of-46, 54.3%) in defeating the Atlanta Hawks, 135-130. It marked the fourth time this season Cleveland had hit at least 20 from deep.

In total, the Cavs have connected on 945 treys, second only to the Houston Rockets (1,075) but solidly in front of the Golden State Warriors (897), and are averaging a ridiculous 12.9 made 3s per game.

Obviously the Bulls are going to need to pay close attention to the curve and consistently look to run shooters off the line, otherwise tonight’s game could get out of hand rather quickly, and Chicago, with only eight left to play this season, badly needs to win tonight if they’re serious about making the playoffs.

The Bulls currently sit in ninth place in the East, a 1.5 games back of both Miami and Indiana for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. After shooting themselves in the foot at home against Philadelphia last week, Chicago got back on the playoff track against the Bucks this past Sunday afternoon with a 109-94 victory in Milwaukee.

For a team that has attempted and made the least amount of 3s in the league this season, the Bulls have actually become somewhat confident of late when it comes to launching the money ball. In Sunday’s victory over the Bucks, the Bulls connected on 10 long balls, and have now hit at least 10 triples in four straight games — the franchise’s longest streak since the NBA adopted the 3-point line at the start of the 1979-80 season.  

For the Bulls to get going offensively they have to attack the boards hard at both ends of the floor while also consistently push the ball up the floor at every opportunity. It’s also vital they look to open up the court by placing shooters all around the arc, forcing the defense to choose between packing the paint and leaving someone open on the perimeter or abandoning the post in order to defend the bend, which then opens driving lanes to the rim.

Thanks to Chicago’s newfound confidence in firing away from distance, Rajon Rondo has been able to get his engine going this month. In 13 March games (eight starts), Rondo has averaged 10 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 48.7% from the field and 51.4% from distance. With the self-assured veteran playmaker back behind the wheel, Chicago’s current starting lineup (Rondo, Butler, Paul Zipser, Niko Mirotic and Robin Lopez) is posting a mark of +41.0 points per 100 possessions — which is pretty darn good. In Sunday’s victory over the Bucks, the Bulls’ starting quintet proved lethal as they combined to score 94 of Chicago’s 109 points that day.

For most of the season the Bulls’ recipe for success has consisted of aggressively taking command of the glass while keenly keeping everyone involved in the action by sharing the ball, skipping passes from side-to-side and player-to-player. In their 35 victories, the Bulls are averaging 108.6 points scored, 48.8 rebounds and 24 assists, while shooting 46.6% from the field and 35.7% from the arc. However in their 39 losses, they’ve only been able to muster 96.9 points, 43.1 rebounds and 20.8 assists while shooting a fairly miserable 42.3% from the field and a downright awful 30.9% from the arc.

Chicago’s mission tonight is to come out fast and strong. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, they have to play with an edge. They need to wrestle control of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and in doing so, take command of the paint and dictate the pace of the game.

Defensively it’s vital that the Bulls successfully defend the 3-point line as the Cavaliers will continually look to score from the curve. For all intents and purposes Chicago needs to play with a great deal of physicality while at the same time play with poise and prudence.

The season is rapidly winding down, thus each and every opportunity to post a victory is important. In order to accomplish their goal of making the playoffs, the Bulls have to commit to putting forth a hardnosed and merciless effort each and every day.  

—   Anthony Hyde