Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Clippers (01.25.19)

Tonight the Bulls (11-37) host the LA Clippers (26-22) at the United Center in the first meeting between the two teams this season. The Clippers swept the season series last year (2-0) and have beaten Chicago five straight coming into tonight’s contest. Tonight also happens to be the end of a four-game road trip for LA, who bounced back nicely after falling 106-98 at Dallas on Tuesday, by beating Miami, 111-99, Wednesday.

The Clippers currently hold the final playoff spot in the West, and rank 5th in the league in scoring at 114.1 points. Pending free agent Tobias Harris leads the way at 21 points a night, plus eight rebounds, followed by sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari (19.0 ppg) and veteran super-subs Lou Williams (18.5 ppg) and Montrezl Harrell (15.6 ppg). Gallinari didn’t make this trip due to a back injury, but Williams and Harrell are healthy and will no doubt look to establish their mark this evening.

Chicago saw its modest one-game win streak snapped at home Wednesday after getting dusted by Atlanta, 121-101. Once again the Bulls got off to a rough start and found themselves down by 17 after the opening quarter. However, they rallied to cut the deficit to six by halftime.

Unfortunately nothing went right afterwards as the Bulls ended up getting outrebounded (51-37), outshot (50.0% to 44.3%) and outclassed from behind the arc. In fact, the Hawks almost doubled them from distance by going 15-of-40 (37.5%) to 8-of-26 (30.7%) for the Bulls from three-point range. The loss was Chicago’s 11th in its last 12 games. As per usual, Zach LaVine led the Bulls in scoring with 23 points, followed by Lauri Markkanen with 22 and six rebounds.

To get themselves back on track tonight the Bulls have to go back to basics and play a smart and aggressive game at both ends of the floor. Offensively, they need to force the Clippers to burn energy by making them chase the ball while at the same time lead them into a gauntlet of hardnosed, bone jarring screens and picks. As a team, the Bulls also must freely share the ball with each other while keeping turnovers in check, and look to attack the basket whenever an opportunity presents.

Chicago’s offensive play has begun to click of late as they’ve posted 100-plus points in 10 straight games, their longest such streak in the last three seasons. LaVine has been spectacular this year in posting career-highs of 22.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a night. In fact he’s scored 20+ points in nine of his last 14 games, and for the year has notched 20 or more points scored 31 times.

Markkanen is also playing well, chipping in 17.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and connecting on 38.7% of his shots from downtown. The seven-foot Finn has reached double-figures in scoring in 15 of his last 16 games, and has knocked down 19 treys in his last six contests.

Defensively, Chicago have to step-up their pressure and in particular, pay attention to the arc tonight. Although LA doesn’t generate a lot of offense from 3-point range (they’re 26th in made 3s), they are the NBA’s 4th best shooting team (38.2%) from the bend. Thus it would be wise for the Bulls to have some awareness each time a Clipper lingers around the arc waiting for an invitation to shoot.

Another key element will be Chicago’s willingness to aggressively crash the boards and lay out for every loose ball. With the exception of the Atlanta game the other night, the Bulls have done a fairly solid job of holding opponents in check on the glass. The Clippers are not a particularly strong rebounding squad, coming into tonight at 14th overall and 21st on the offensive end of the floor. Thus from the moment of the opening tip the Bulls need to commit to outworking and outhustling LA in every phase of the game to come away with a victory.