Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Cavaliers (12.02.16)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (10-7) and the defending NBA World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers (13-4) meet for the first of four times this season. The Bulls won last season’s series, 3-1, but the Cavs, led by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had the last laugh on everyone in capturing the league title. So far this season, they continue to look like the team to beat in the East and a solid bet to repeat as World Champions.

However, both the Bulls and the Cavs come into tonight determined to establish something good after poor starts to their week. Chicago returns to the home hardwood looking to rebound from a disappointing and ugly six-point loss to the Lakers Wednesday, while Cleveland attempts to bounce back after suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season. Surprisingly both were blowouts, the first coming in Milwaukee Tuesday, 118-101, and then last night at home against the Los Angeles Clippers, 113-94.

“Two pretty poor games for sure,” commented James after last night’s loss to LA. “You’re hoping they’re not back-to-back, but it happens. Now, three games in a row? That’s something to talk about.”

So far the Bulls have proven tough to beat whenever they stampede out of the blocks and play fast. Therefore, in order to come out on top, especially so against such an elite opponent, Chicago will have to show up to work with a gritty mindset. A primary key will be the Bulls’ ability to take control of the boards. Chicago currently ranks 2nd in the league with an average of 48.9 rebounds per game, while Cleveland is tied for 7th at 44.8. Chicago is particularly strong on the offensive glass, with an NBA-best 13.9 average, while the Cavs are in the middle of pack at No. 15 with a 10.1 mark. The Bulls are out-banging opponents by an impressive 5.0 boards overall, and outhustling them in putting up second-chance points, ranking 2nd with an average of 16.2 points per night.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they push the ball up the floor and keep it hopping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to really click, the ball must skip freely and not be held in anyone’s hands for very long. Every Bulls player on the court needs to be active and fully engaged.

Without a doubt, Chicago’s most effective when they go on the attack and force the opposition to foul. As a team, they have done an excellent job of getting to the free throw line, as they’ve outscored opponents 339-243 coming into tonight. The Bulls have also cashed in 20 or more charity tosses in 10 of their first 17 games and rank 3rd in free throw shooting (.811).

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is the two-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist averaging a career-best 25.6 points, but he is also 1st in the league in made free-throws made (9.1), and tied for 2nd in free-throw attempts (10.1).

Butler has been on fire of late as he’s scored 20 or more points in 11 straight games. During this stretch, he is averaging 28.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.8 steals per game.

In short, Chicago’s primary task is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and never slow down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, they must be tenacious. They need to wrestle control of the boards and not allow Cleveland opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores. In particular, the Bulls have to aggressively defend the 3-point arc as the Cavs are one of the league’s top long distance shooting teams, averaging 34.8 attempts and hitting an absurd .389 from the curve and beyond. Cavs All-Star guard, Kyrie Irving, has hit 45-of-106 (.425) from distance, followed closely by power forward Kevin Love (41-98 .418) and reserve forward, Channing Frye (32-67 .478). Overall, Cleveland is averaging 110.3 points per game and allowing 104.3, while the Bulls average 104.4 points but give up just 98.8.