Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Clippers (03.04.17)

Riding high after knocking off the Golden State Warriors Thursday at the United Center, the Chicago Bulls (31-30) welcome another high-octane Western Conference opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers (36-25), to the Windy City before heading out on a two-game road swing through Detroit and Orlando next week.

The Bulls are on a nice roll of late, having won five of their last six games, an impressive stretch in which they have gone toe-to-toe and overpowered some highly regarded playoff teams in the likes of Toronto, Boston, Cleveland and now Golden State. The Clippers, on the other hand, hit town closing out a back-to-back set of games after taking on the Milwaukee Bucks last night up in the land of cheese, beer and brats. After tonight’s contest, the Clippers head home to face Boston Monday on national TV, and then its back on the road, this time to Minnesota and Memphis before closing the week at home against Philly next Saturday night.

The Bulls and the Clippers met earlier this season in LA back on November 19th, a game in which the Clippers ran away with an exciting, hard-fought comeback victory, 102-95.

At one point Chicago held a nifty 19-point lead, but Mr. “Mo Buckets” himself, LA’s highly underrated backup power forward, Maurice Speights, caught fire late, scoring 11 points during the fourth quarter to rally the Clippers. As usual, Blake Griffin (26 points and 13 rebounds) and Chris Paul (19 points and eight assists) provided outstanding production for LA while Dwyane Wade (28 points and eight rebounds) and Jimmy Butler (22 points and six rebounds) led Chicago’s attack.

As hot as the Bulls have been of late, that’s just how cold the Clippers have been since the end of the All-Star break some 10 days ago. Not including last night in Milwaukee, LA comes into this evening’s game having lost three of their last four games. In three of those contests, the Clippers surrendered 122, 121 and 123 points, respectively, and were badly beaten on the boards, allowing opponents to capture an average of 52.3 rebounds compared to the 39.3 they were able to claim.

Offensively, the Clippers recently have fallen into the trap of abandoning the principles of unselfish play, as the ball seems to suddenly stop moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side, and players start attempting to take on two, three, and sometimes four defenders at a time.     

For Chicago, Thursday’s coup over Golden State was a direct result of the Bulls playing with a great deal of energy and focus throughout the entire game. When Chicago steps up its intensity, especially on the defensive end, they can be a tough matchup. Case in point: after allowing Denver to run wild and light up the United Center scoreboard with 125 points Tuesday, the Bulls buckled down and held Golden State, the NBA’s top offensive team by 100 miles, to a season-low 87. Thus Chicago is now 19-4 this season when they hold an opponent to under 100 points.

Offensively, both the Bulls and the Clippers are at their best when they push the pace and play unselfishly. When the ball gets up the court in a hurry and is equally shared, good things tend to happen. Looking for proof? Here you go – the Bulls are 16-4 and the Clippers are 23-7 when either of them post the same or more assists than the opposition.  

Chicago’s primary formula for success has always consisted of taking the floor with a hardnosed approach, establishing a will to out-hustle the opposition in every conceivable way. Thus their defensive strategy this evening will need to center on shutting down paths to the basket, especially with regards to one of the game’s best floor generals, LA’s Chris Paul, who can score from anywhere, but primarily loves to attack the rim.

An important offensive element that has to happen for the Bulls to succeed is that they need to do a good job of spacing the floor. Although Chicago won’t win many jump-shooting contests, spreading shooters around the three-point arc forces defenders to move away from the paint, which in turn offers opportunities for the Bulls’ guards to go on the attack, and oftentimes get fouled. As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of finding their way to the free throw line. Coming into tonight, they rank 10th in free throw attempts (24.2), 6th in free throws made (19.3) and 7th in overall free throw shooting (79.8%). In taking a closer look at those stats, you’ll see they have attempted 335 more free throws and connected 299 more times from the stripe than their opponents.

In this manner, Jimmy Butler has taken his game to another level by consistently and aggressively attacking the basket at every opportunity, and in turn, making his way to the charity stripe. Currently Butler ranks 4th in the league in free throw attempts (9.3) and 3rd in free throws made (8.1). He’s also scoring a career-best 23.9 points a night while shooting a career-best 87.0% from the line.

In short, the Bulls primary mission this evening is to come out fast and aggressive. It’s also important that they take control of the boards. So far the Clippers are 7-17 whenever they get outworked on the glass, while the Bulls are 26-16 whenever they win the battle. The Clippers are powered by Paul and Griffin, however LA also has a number of other weapons who are capable to taking control of a game at any time – (i.e. Maurice Speights on November 19th, 3x NBA Sixth Man of the Year winner and former Bulls guard Jamal Crawford and sharpshooter JJ Redick, who starts and averages 14.9 points and shoots 41.6% from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Bulls need to pay close attention while being quick, decisive and aggressive in every way, shape and form.

—   Anthony Hyde