Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Cavaliers (04.17.21)

The Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers tip-off for the second of three games this season, with tonight's contest at the United Center. The teams close their annual series this Wednesday in Cleveland.

In the first meeting, the Cavs came away with a 103-94 victory at the UC. Second-year pro Darius Garland had 22 points and nine assists, while center Jarrett Allen added 19 points and nine rebounds to lead a balanced Cleveland attack. Cavs leading scorer, Collin Sexton, didn't play because of injury, but Larry Nance Jr. did, contributing 14 points and pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds for Cleveland.

Zach LaVine led Chicago with 22 points, scoring 18 by halftime on 6-of-8 shooting, including knocking home four 3-pointers. The second half was a different story, as LaVine didn't connect again until late in the game. He was held to just two baskets on 12 attempts. Lauri Markkanen also started strong with 13 points in the first half before cooling off, finishing with 17. Bulls guards Coby White and Tomáš Satoranský each chipped in 11 points.

Fans can catch tonight's action on TV at NBC Sports Chicago Plus 2 or on radio at WSCR-AM 670. There's also a Spanish radio broadcast on TUDN, Univision 1200-AM.

Tonight's game is the second of a back-to-back for Chicago. Last night the Bulls dropped their fifth in a row, falling 126-115 to the Memphis Grizzlies. Chicago had to rearrange its starting lineup just before tip-off as Zach LaVine has been sidelined due to the league's health and safety protocols and Tomáš Satoranský came down with a bug, not related to Covid. Coby White answered the call, as did veteran Garrett Temple to fill-in the suddenly empty Bulls backcourt. Head Coach Billy Donovan also opted to swap out Thaddeus Young for Daniel Theis to start in the frontcourt.

White delivered in a big way, leading the Bulls in scoring with 27 points. He also knocked down four three-pointers and dished seven assists. It was White's 12th game this season scoring 20+ points.

All-Star center Nikola Vučević also produced a strong all-around game with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. It was Vučević's third straight double-double and seventh in 12 games since coming to Chicago at the trade deadline.

Chicago has surprisingly been suffering a rough go since that March 25th trade deadline when the team added five new players, including Vučević, the aforementioned Daniel Theis, as well as Troy Brown Jr., all of whom have played well and have clearly upped the Bulls' overall talent level. Despite that influx of increased skill, Chicago has managed to win just three games out of 12.

Cleveland comes to town having lost three of its last four overall, but if you look a little closer, you'll see they've won three in a row on the road. Entering tonight the Cavs are two games back of the Bulls in the standings. In their last outing on Thursday, the Cavs lost at home to Golden State, 119-101. Sexton posted his sixth 30-point game of the season and added four rebounds and two assists. His backcourt mate, Darius Garland also had a good night on the scoresheet with 20 points, four rebounds and a team-best seven assists. Starting center, Jarrett Allen, continues to prove he's one of the best young pivots in the league, recording his 20th double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds, as well as two steals.

As a team, the Wine & Gold knocked down 10 triples and collected 11 steals. It was Cleveland's 18th double-digit steal game on the season.

For Chicago defensively, it's absolutely vital they tighten things up near the basket, as they enter tonight as one of the NBA's worst guardians of the paint. This season the Bulls have allowed opponents to score 50.3 points a game down low, ranking 26 out of 30. Cleveland's backcourt of Sexton and Garland will certainly try to exploit that weakness this evening, as will Allen. For the Bulls to get on track and snap this current five-game skid, they have to do a far better job of communicating with each other in shutting down paths to the hoop.

As a unified force, Chicago must also show up in a feisty mood, and not shy away from playing a physical game, especially by delivering a clear message that if anyone attempts to attack the rim against the Bulls' defense, a heavy toll will need to be paid.

As a team, the Bulls must also take command of the boards at both ends of the floor, forcing the Cavaliers to operate far from the basket and deny them extra scoring opportunities in transition as well as easy put-backs of missed shots.

As for offense, for the Bulls to take command of a game, they must play unselfishly by constantly passing the ball from player-to-player and continuously moving it from side-to-side. Relentless ball and player movement oftentimes forces defenses to scramble, overreact and breakdown. It also forces defenses to commit unnecessary fouls. Free-flowing movement makes it easier for an offense to attack the basket and finish at the rim with high percentage shots. Plus, it keeps everyone actively involved in the action and flow of the game.

With Vučević manning the middle, the Bulls have tweaked their scheme by looking to get the ball down low and into his hands near the basket early and often, particularly at the start of games, instead of relying more often than not on the team's perimeter shooting skills. Vučević is one of the NBA's best and most efficient scorers. Besides sporting a soft touch near the rim, he's also adept of stepping out behind the three-point arc and knocking down shots from long distance. He comes in tonight shooting 41.5% from behind the arc, landing him in the Top 20 in the league. Vučević's skillset makes it impossible for an opposing center to stay anchored under the basket to protect the rim. Once Vučević steps out and knocks down a shot or two from deep, his defender must abandon the paint and come out to guard him. That should make it easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to find a teammate cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.

In short, for the Bulls to succeed they have to be aggressive and carry that mindset throughout the entire game. Habitually, they have to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way. They must be willing to fight through screens, go hard after every rebound and be eager to dive onto the floor for every loose ball. If the Bulls play with a proverbial chip on their shoulder, come in focused and poised, and work hard to achieve most of these nightly goals, they'll give themselves a fighting chance to be the last team standing at the end of every game.