Tonight the Los Angeles Clippers tip-off a three-game road trip by making their only visit to the United Center to take on the Chicago Bulls. Tonight also marks the end of the season series between the two teams.
Although Chicago shot a perfect 21-of-21 from the free throw line and all five starters scored in double figures (led by Zach LaVine's 21 points), the Clippers sailed away with a 113-103 victory the first time the teams met at LA's Staples Center in a Saturday afternoon matinee on February 3rd. At the time it was Chicago's sixth straight loss, as they were forced to take the court without starting point guard Kris Dunn (concussion) and power forward Lauri Markkanen (personal).
The Clippers basically led from the opening tip but were never able to shake the Bulls, as Chicago hung close throughout. Tobias Harris, who recently joined LA in a trade with Detroit earlier that week, teamed with holdover Danilo Gallinari to combine for 48 points (24 apiece) in their first game together. The Clippers also posted a season-high 33 fastbreak points to Chicago's 19. Harris shot 10-of-19 from the field, including hitting a 3-pointer less than 30 seconds into the game.
As for LA's most recent action, they broke open a tight contest late to defeat the Orlando Magic on Saturday at the Staples Center, 113-105. Lou Williams led the way with 25 points, 10 of which came in the decisive fourth quarter. In fact, Williams has been clutch down the stretch all year long. The veteran guard currently leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 7.7 per game.
Harris produced another strong game for the Clippers with 21 points, while center DeAndre Jordan pulled down 15 rebounds and 30-year old, first-year playmaker Milos Teodosic came off the bench to add 15 points and seven assists. It was LA's fourth win in their last five games, and moved them a half-game ahead of Denver and Utah in the race for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
The Bulls return home tonight after knocking off the Atlanta Hawks on the road Sunday afternoon, 129-122. Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis led the way with 21 points apiece, while Lauri Markkanen chipped in 19 and fellow rookie Antonio Blakeney added 14.
Chicago got off to another rocky start, falling behind by as many as 16 early in the opening quarter but eventually settled down and went on to outscore Atlanta, 33-16, in the second to take a 53-50 lead at the half.
For the game the Bulls handed out 31 assists while committing just five turnovers. Chicago also blanked Atlanta 21-0 in second-chance scoring, and outran them 21-9 in fastbreak points.
In order for the Bulls to stay on track tonight against a formidable playoff contender they really can't afford to get off to another slow start. However, if they do, they must keep their poise and play with confidence, especially if their first few shots miss the mark.
Just like they did against Atlanta the other day, the Bulls have to keep turnovers in check while quickly driving the ball up the floor and making sure it jumps from player-to-player and from one side of the court to the other.
To that end Chicago also needs to open up the floor by stationing shooters all along the 3-point arc to force LA's defense to come out from under the basket and cover a lot of ground. The Bulls' playmakers, led by point guards Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, as well as wings Zach LaVine, David Nwaba and Denzel Valentine, need to initiate an aggressive pace and take advantage of every opportunity to drive the ball hard to the rim.
And speaking of the rim, as a team Chicago needs to crash the boards hard at both ends of the floor. So far this season whenever the Clippers match or outright win the rebounding battle they've gone on to post a record of 25-11, however whenever the opposition assumes control of the glass, LA's gone 11-18. Thus it would obviously benefit the Bulls to command the boards, especially at the defensive end, as doing so often leads to a number of fastbreaks and easy scoring opportunities.
As a general rule, Chicago looks to take between 85-to-90 shots a game, with 30 (or more) launched from beyond the 3-point arc. In order to achieve both of these objectives the Bulls have to play with pace. They must advance the ball up the court without hesitation and keep it moving in search of an open shooter or freed-up driving lane to the basket. To generate those kinds of open looks they have to force LA's defense to constantly shift and move about. They must entice the Clippers defense defend the perimeter in order to free up the paint and open paths to the basket. Freely sharing the ball also gets and keeps everyone on offense involved in the action.
In short, Chicago has to come out of the gates fast and play with an edge. To beat a strong and sturdy Clippers team the Bulls will have to outwork, outhustle and out-execute them in every phase of the game.