Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Heat (01.15.18)

This afternoon the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat get together for the third of four times this season. The Heat won both of the earlier matchups, 97-91 in Miami back on November 1, and then again here at the United Center, 100-93, on November 26. Rookie Lauri Markkanen led Chicago with 25 points and eight rebounds, followed closely by Robin Lopez’s 22, as David Nwaba snagged 11 rebounds and Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant handed out five assists apiece in the opener. Chicago even outrebounded the Heat 54-48 that night, but none of it mattered as Miami’s Goran Dragic was spectacular, sparking a 32-12 run down the stretch to put the Heat comfortably in the lead. Dragic posted a team-high 20 points while Tyler Johnson came off the bench with 19.

In the rematch a few weeks later at the UC, Dragic once again stepped center stage with a team-high 24 points while apparently it was Wayne Ellington’s turn to provide a spark off the Miami the bench, as the veteran sniper calmly and methodically knocked down five 3-pointers on his way to posting 19 points. Chicago, on the other hand, had a tough time from the jump and couldn’t ever find its way, scoring zero fastbreak points and shooting a paltry 37.1% from the field. Miami’s bench outscored the Bulls’ reserves 54-41 despite Jerian Grant notching a season-high 24 off-the-pine.

The Heat come into this afternoon’s contest riding the wave of an impressive seven-game win streak and a 25-17 record overall after thumping the Milwaukee Bucks, 97-79, yesterday afternoon in Miami. As for the Bulls, although their record stands at just 16-27, they hit the hardwood feeling buoyant as well after dropping New York (for the third time this season) in double-overtime at Madison Square Garden, 122-119, Wednesday, and then taking down Detroit, 107-105, Saturday in Chicago. Zach LaVine triumphantly returned to the court after 11 months of rehab from a torn left ACL and scored 14 points and handed out two assists in just 19 minutes to spark the Bulls on Saturday. The electrifying 6’5” guard knocked down his first shot from behind the 3-point arc just 37 seconds into the game to quickly make himself feel at home again on the hardwood. Lauri Markkanen connected on 7-of-15 from the field and 4-of-7 from long distance to lead the Bulls with 19 points. Kris Dunn also enjoyed a strong night with 18 points, hitting 7-of-13 from the field while also dishing 8 dimes and snaring 8 boards.

After starting the season in ugly fashion by going 3-20, the Bulls have clearly turned the tables with a 13-7 (.650) run over their last 20 games. The 107 points scored against the Pistons was the 17th time during this 20-game stretch that Chicago has reached the century mark. In comparison, during the 3-20 death march, the Bulls scored 100 or more only eight times.

As for today’s keys, once again the Bulls need to play a hardnosed, physical game. As mentioned above, the Heat are on an impressive roll, thus Chicago will have to come out of the gates fast and exceed Miami’s energy in establishing an aggressive pace. One thing to keep in mind again is Miami played at home yesterday afternoon and immediately traveled to Chicago to take the floor a second time a little less than 24-hours later. On the surface that may not sound like a tough challenge, however, both the Heat and the Bulls are entering the “dog days” of the NBA’s 82-game schedule, so long travel and a lack of rest often comes into play right about now.

Chicago’s offensive schemes are designed for quick strikes with everyone playing a role in the action. Thus for it to run smoothly the Bulls have to take advantage of their speed and athleticism by hitting the glass hard and getting into transition at every opportunity. They need to persistently attack early in possessions in hopes of denying the defense enough time to get set. The ball has to be shared, crisply skipping from one side of the court to the other, from player-to-player, in order to generate open looks at the basket.

Thus whenever the Bulls seize a defensive rebound look for them to swiftly push the ball up the floor and station shooters evenly along the 3-point arc to draw Miami’s defense out from under the basket. Chicago’s best ballhandlers, in particular Dunn, Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine, need to doggedly drive the ball into the paint to force the defense to react. If the Heat collectively slide down toward the basket and/or attempt to trap or double-team, the Bulls’ attackers have to make an adjustment of their own in quickly finding a teammate open on the perimeter for a clean look at the rim.

In short, the Bulls have to quickly come out of the gates and stay aggressive. They have to establish a fast pace and keep everyone mentally and physically engaged at both ends of the floor. If they can accomplish most of these objectives, there’s a good chance they can end up as the last team standing when the final horn blasts later this afternoon.