Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Cavaliers (11.10.18)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first of four games scheduled between the two Central Division rivals. Chicago comes home having just split a brief, two-game road swing, with the first stop an exciting 116-115 double-overtime victory against the Knicks in New York, and the second a frustrating 107-98 loss to the Pelicans in New Orleans. The Cavs come to town owning the NBA's worst overall record, having recently lost four in a row and 10 of 11 overall to start the 2018-19 season.

Cleveland's last time out was at home against the OKC Thunder Wednesday evening. Cavs top draft pick Collin Sexton posted a career-high 15 points on 7-of-14 (.500) shooting over 42 minutes in his first career start. Strongman Tristan Thompson collected his fourth double-double on the season by notching 10 points and 15 rebounds.

In what had been a tight, back-and-forth contest most of the night, with the Cavs actually leading 82-80 with 6:18 remaining in the game, OKC was able to take control with a 15-4 run down the stretch to pull out a 95-86 road win. Veteran point guard Dennis Schroder filling in for an injured Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 28 points, while Thunder All-Star Paul George chipped in 18 points and seven rebounds.

Much like Chicago, Cleveland has been mercilessly chomped upon by the injury bug to start the year. All-Star forward Kevin Love was forced to the sidelines early due to an injured toe that eventually required surgery. Then this past Monday in a loss to Orlando, starting guard George Hill suffered a sprained right shoulder that will now keep him out of action for the next two weeks. Lastly, starting small forward Cedi Osman was only able to play six minutes against OKC the other night before going down with back spasms. Cleveland, in a precautionary move, declared Osman out for tonight's game yesterday morning.

As for Chicago's bumps and bruises, there's some good news and bad news. The good news is Lauri Markkanen who suffered a badly sprained right elbow the first week of training camp is beginning to ramp up basketball activities. He's not practicing with the team yet, but he has been able to do some light shooting and cardio work. The bad news is reserve wing Denzel Valentine's bum left ankle hasn't responded to treatment, and so his timetable to return to the court is very much up in the air. Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis are also out for the time being due to each suffering sprained MCLs. The hope is that Markkanen, Dunn and Portis will get back on the hardwood by early December, if not a few days before.

With regards to this evening's contest, the Bulls have to hit the floor running from the opening tip and quickly establish a fast pace to the game. It's also vital they make their presence felt on the glass (at both ends) in order to set an imposing tone and fire-up their offense by swiftly getting the ball up the floor and denying the Cavs time to set up defensively. To be successful Chicago has to be aggressive in every way. However, when a fastbreak opportunities aren't available, the Bulls need to look to open up the middle of the floor and then relentlessly attack the basket. The most effective way to realize this aim is to consistently position shooters all along the three-point arc to draw the defense out to the perimeter and away from under the hoop. The Bulls also have to share the ball freely, getting and keeping everyone involved. Crisp passes between all five players positioned evenly placed on the floor will stretch the defense and force it to overreact, opening up lanes to the basket.

Defensively, Chicago is a team that has to out work their opponents in every phase. Every Chicagoan that steps onto the court tonight has to stay focused and be willing to deliver maximum effort. As banged up as they are Chicago can't afford to take it easy, but rather they have to sport a stubborn attitude and play with an edge. The Bulls need to be willing to fight for every loose ball and rebound to give themselves a shot of coming out on top at the end of the night.