Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Grizzlies (04.16.21)

The Bulls and the Memphis Grizzlies tip-off for the second and final time this evening at the United Center. The teams met earlier this week in Memphis with the Grizzlies coming out on top, 101-90.

Memphis center Jonas Valančiūnas had 26 points and 14 rebounds, leading a fourth-quarter rally to carry the Grizz to the win. The 6'11 pivot scored 10 points in the final frame as Memphis used an 18-6 run to break open a tight contest. It was Valančiūnas' 15th consecutive double-double, establishing a franchise record.

Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks finished with 17 points, while guards Grayson Allen added 14, and Ja Morant notched his own double-double with 13 points and 10 assists.

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 21 points, but he was just 5 for 14 from the field. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young also had a productive game, with 20 points, while backup center Daniel Theis came off the Chicago bench to chip in 18 points. Starting middle-man, Nikola Vučević, posted a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. The contest wrapped up a span of nine-of-10 games on the road for the Bulls.

Fans can catch tonight's tilt on TV at NBC Sports Chicago or on radio at WSCR-AM 670. There's also a Spanish radio broadcast on TUDN, Univision 1200-AM.

Memphis was on a nice roll earlier this month but has struggled since losing in overtime to the New York Knicks on April 9th. Since then, the Grizzlies have won only one of their last four games, with the lone victory coming against Chicago.

In their last outing, the Grizzlies dropped a heartbreaker to the Dallas Mavericks, 114-113. Grayson Allen scored 23 points, while Valančiūnas chipped in 19 points and 15 rebounds. But a Luka Dončić game-winning shot at the buzzer sealed the deal for the Mavericks.

Memphis led for most of the game, however, they seemed to run out of steam in the fourth by getting outscored, 31-24.

The Bulls have surprisingly been on the skids since the March 25th trade deadline. Despite adding All-Star center Nikola Vučević, Chicago has managed to win just three games out of 11. In fact, the Bulls come into tonight on a four-game losing streak.

In their last game, Chicago came out flat from the start, losing to the Orlando Magic, 115-106. LaVine (30 points), Vučević (29 points) and Daniel Theis (16 points) all sparkled for the Bulls. But the rest of the squad badly underperformed, which led to another headshaking loss, Chicago's 32nd of the season.

If that wasn't frustrating enough, the next morning it was learned that LaVine will be sidelined for possibly the next two weeks due to the league's Covid health and safety protocols. LaVine, a first-time All-Star this season is the team's top offensive weapon, averaging 27.5 points, 5.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 50.6% from the field, 41.6% from distance and 84.8% from the charity stripe.

In facing Memphis tonight, the Bulls are going up against a young, but also tough-minded team that doesn't shy away from contact. So, for Chicago to have a legitimate shot of coming out on top, they're going to need someone to step-up to fill the void of LaVine's loss, and as a team, they have to take the floor completely focused and locked in at both ends of the hardwood from the opening tip.

Defensively, the Bulls have to tighten things up near the basket, as far too many opponents are having big nights because they can make their way through the paint for easy scores. Nothing builds momentum like a parade of layups. As a united unit, Chicago must match Memphis' willingness to get physical, delivering the message that if anyone attacks the rim against Chicago's defense, a heavy price will be paid.

As a team, the Bulls also need to come together to seize command of the boards at both ends of the floor, forcing Memphis to operate outside, far from the basket.

This will not be easy, as Valančiūnas seems to always have a big night whenever he sees the Bulls. The 6'11, 265-pound pivotman is averaging 17.0 points and 12.8 rebounds and ranks 3rd in the league with 40 double-doubles.

Another key player Chicago needs to set its sights on this evening is electric point guard, Ja Morant, who reminds everyone of a prime-time Derrick Rose.

The second-year playmaker is averaging 18.9 points and 7.4 assists. He constantly is on the attack, either scoring at the rim himself or finding a teammate cutting to the hoop from the weakside. Morant, however, is not a good three-point shooter (26.9%). If the Bulls can find a way to stay in front of him and force him to operate mostly out on the perimeter, that could help neutralize Morant's overall effectiveness this evening.

As for Chicago's offense, in order for the Bulls to control the game, they have to play unselfishly, constantly skipping the ball from player-to-player. Persistent passing from side-to-side and in-and-out of the paint forces defenses to overreact, scramble and with a little luck, commit unnecessary fouls. Free-flowing passing also makes it easier for the offense to attack the basket and finish at the rim with dunks and other high percentage shots.

By adding Vučević to the mix, Chicago has adjusted its offensive scheme by looking to get the ball into his hands near the basket early and often, especially at the start of games, compared to relying mostly on the team's perimeter shooting skills. Vučević is one of the game's most efficient scorers. But besides owning a great touch at the iron, he is capable of stepping outside and knocking down three-pointers. Vučević's skillset makes it impossible for rivals to leave their big men under the basket to protect the rim. Once Vučević steps outside and knocks down a couple of shots from long distance, his defender has to abandon the paint and come out to guard him. That should make it easier for the Bulls ballhandlers to find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups, as well as earn extra trips to the free throw line.

This is another reason why the Bulls must play unselfishly. The ball needs to skip fast and free among all five players on the floor. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the flow of the offense is vital.

All in all, Chicago has been a very unselfish team, as this year's squad has topped the 30-assist mark 12 times. Overall, the Bulls rank 8th in the league in assists at 26.5 per game.

In short, in order for the Bulls to be successful they must be aggressive and keep that mindset throughout the entire night. Habitually, they must outhustle and outwork opponents in every way. They have to fight their way through screens, go all out for every rebound and be willing and frankly, eager to dive onto the floor for every loose ball. If the Bulls show up with a chip on their shoulder and accomplish most of these objectives, they should give themselves a better than fighting chance of being the last team standing at the end of the night.