Tonight the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers meet for the third time this season. The two got together initially on October 24th in Cleveland, where the Cavs pulled away late to post a 119-112 victory. Six Clevelanders scored in double-digits led by LeBron James' game-high 34 points. Cleveland shot 43-of-83 (51.8%) from the field, and went 16-of-38 (42.1%) from 3-point range. Swingman Justin Holiday led Chicago's attack with 25 points followed by rookie Lauri Markkanen's 19 points and 8 rebounds.
The second time the Bulls and the Cavs got together, Cleveland dominated from the jump, winning 113-91 at the United Center on December 4th. Kevin Love and former Bulls guard Dwyane Wade paved the way to the rout in notching 24 points apiece, while James added 23 points, six assists and seven rebounds. Kris Dunn led the Bulls with 15 points, six rebounds and five dimes.
Both the Bulls and the Cavs come into tonight's contest red hot. Cleveland has won 11 straight at home and 18 of their last 20 overall, while Chicago is riding an exciting seven-game winning streak.
Over the Cavs' 11-game home streak, they're averaging 113.1 points, 25.8 assists and 12.9 3-pointers while shooting 50.4% from the floor and 41.2% from distance. If that isn't impressive enough, the Wine & Gold have also scored at least 100 points in 25 consecutive games.
As for Chicago, last night the Bulls hit on all cylinders, getting contributions from everyone and everywhere in thumping Orlando 112-94 at the United Center. Denzel Valentine led the way with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Niko Mirotic also posted a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Kris Dunn chipped in 15 points of his own to go along with six rebounds and seven assists.
Defensively, Chicago held the Magic to 39.3% shooting from the field and 18.5% from distance. The Bulls also outrebounded Orlando 51-35 overall, and 21-6 off-the-bench. In fact, Chicago's bench mob outscored Orlando's reserves 54-42.
Tonight, however, the 23-9 Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be a much tougher challenge. The Cavs are loaded with a number of explosive players, all of whom are capable to taking over at a moment's notice. As a team, the Bulls must pay close attention to the 3-point arc and persistently look to run shooters off the bend. Chicago must also commit to crashing the boards hard at both ends of the floor, and if they fail to collect a rebound or loose ball, they have to really hustle to the other end to prevent Cleveland from posting easy scores in transition.
Without a doubt, the Bulls are going to have to play a physical game and pledge to outhustle the Cavs in every way.
Chicago's offensive system is designed for all five players to get involved in the action, and thus for it to click the ball has to freely be shared. It must swing from side-to-side and player-to-player to force the defense to expend extra energy.
It's also important for the Bulls not rush or launch quick shots, but rather stay under control and establish an easy, free-flowing rhythm that will help them uncover good looks at the iron from any number of places on the floor.
Thus tonight whenever the Bulls have the ball look for them to spread out, stationing shooters evenly along the arc to entice Cleveland's defense to extend away from the rim and free up driving lanes to the basket. Chicago's ballhandlers, particularly Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine will need to aggressively drive the ball deep into the paint to create chaos for the Cavs. If Cleveland adjusts by sliding down towards the basket and attempts to double the Bulls' attackers before they get to the cup, those attackers need to make an adjustment of their own on the fly, locating an open teammate on the perimeter and get that man the ball. Overall, Dunn, Grant Nwaba, Holiday and Valentine have done a terrific job this season of getting into the paint and finding open teammates out on the wings.
In short, the Bulls will need to come out of the gates quickly and establish a fast and aggressive pace, keeping everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor. If they can accomplish those objectives, they'll give themselves a real shot of pulling off an impressive upset.