Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Heat (01.27.17)

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (23-24) take on the suddenly scorching hot Miami Heat (16-30) in the third and final game scheduled for this season. Chicago is looking to sweep this year’s season series as they beat the Heat in each of the previous two get-togethers, but only by a combined 8 points.

In the first match, a contest that featured 19 lead changes and 14 ties, Jimmy Butler notched 20 points to lead Chicago to a 98-95 victory in Miami. Four weeks later at the United Center, Chicago marched to the free throw line 31 times and connected on 28 attempts (Butler alone went 15-of-16), while Miami shot 11-of-18 from the stripe as the Bulls beat the Heat, 105-100. Butler led all scorers that evening with 31 points and also recorded seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, while Dwyane Wade chipped in 28 points, three rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the winning cause. Miami’s Goran Dragic led the Heat attack with 21 points and 11 assists.

Unfortunately, that was then and this is now for Chicago, a team that hits the hardwood hoping to bounce back from an infuriating home loss to Atlanta, Wednesday.

After establishing a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead with just a little over three minutes left to play, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. each nailed 3s on consecutive possessions to jumpstart a 19-4 run down the stretch for the Hawks. When the dust finally settled, Atlanta had soared to an improbable 119-114 victory. Afterwards, emotions boiled over inside the Bulls’ locker room, and they continued to bubble yesterday. Thus if Chicago is going to right the ship this evening, they’re going to need to put their frustrations aside and refocus on a young Heat squad that hits town on a five-game winning streak — one that includes impressive victories over Houston, Dallas, Milwaukee, Golden State and the Brooklyn.

For the most part this season Chicago has succeeded when they come out of the blocks united and locked-in the moment they walk onto the floor. Thus the Bulls desperately need to approach tonight’s game with a gritty mindset from the jump and sustain that attitude throughout the entire contest.

Offensively, the Bulls have been at their best when they push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Whenever the ball hops freely and isn’t stuck in anyone’s hands for more than a couple of beats, good things have typically transpired. However, that means every player on the court has to buy in to this concept and stay fully engaged as to what’s going on in front of him.

In order to establish an effective offensive flow, Chicago will have to spread the floor, setting up shooters far from the paint in order to draw Miami’s defense away from the rim. At that point, when a path to the basket opens up, the Bulls’ guards and wings, particularly Butler, Wade and Jerian Grant will need to go on the attack, aggressively taking the action to the iron, forcing Miami’s defense to scramble.

As a team, the Bulls have done a tremendous job of making their way to the free throw line while at the same time keeping the opposition at bay. Heading into tonight, Chicago has strolled to the charity stripe 1,154 times and connected on 927 occasions, which computes to a highly respectable 80.3% success rate. Bulls’ opponents, on the other hand, have only attempted 883 foul shots, making 671 for a rather ordinary 76.0%. When you break down the numbers you discover Chicago has attempted 271 more free throws and earned 256 extra points at the charity stripe. Even in Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta, the Bulls posted another game where they made at least 20 free throws (they hit 20-of-26), which was the 25th time this season that has happened. In fact, the Bulls have made their way to the line more often than their opponent in nine of their last 10 games.

Butler, in particular, has been brilliant at making his way to the stripe. The sixth-year, three-time All-Star scored 40 points and went 10-for-10 from the line Wednesday night. It was his fifth 40-point game on the year and his 18th with 10 or more made free throws. Butler, who is averaging a career-best 24.9 points, is third in the NBA in free throws made per game (8.3) and fourth in free throws attempted (9.5). He’s shooting an almost automatic 87.4% from the line.

Another key factor as to whether or not the Bulls are going to have a successful evening is how they do on the boards. Currently they lead the league in rebounding with an average of 47.3 per game. Tonight’s opponent, the Miami Heat, are 9th with a mark of 44.0 rebounds a game.

A window of opportunity looks to be open for the Bulls with regards to offensive rebounding, as Chicago comes in as the NBA’s No. 1 team in this category as well, averaging 13.4, while the Heat rank 11th at 10.4 per game.

An important advantage to being a strong offensive rebounding team is that you’re able to post a number of easy scores via put-backs. Obviously, Chicago has maxed out its ability on the offensive window as they are also the NBA’s top team in second-chance scoring, averaging 16.0 points per game, while Miami is 11th at 13.2. Thus far, the Bulls have won 19 times whenever they outrebound and outscore an opponents via second-chance points. Miami has won 12 times whenever they outrebound the opponent, but have gone 4-21 when the opponent outrebounds them. Likewise, the Heat have gone 9-11 when they post their opponents in second-chance scoring, but are 5-18 when the shoe ends up on the other foot.

Lastly, another important factor to winning has always been which team outhustles the other with regards to getting back on defense and stopping the opponent from feasting on fastbreak points. The Heat come into tonight’s game the NBA leader at holding opponents in check, giving up, on average, just 8.32 fastbreak points a game. In 10 of Miami’s 16 victories this season, the Heat have scored more on the break, but they’ve gone 6-15 when the opposition does it to them. So far the Bulls have gone 12-8 whenever they win the transition game.

Besides Dragic, who leads the Heat in scoring at 19.5 per game, the Bulls are also going to need to keep a close eye on backcourt mate Dion Waiters, as well as big man, Hassan Whiteside, if Whiteside’s able to play.

The 6’4” Waiters is averaging 14.9 on the season, but of late he’s more than doubled that output, scoring 30 points a game while shooting 61.4% percent from the field (35-of-57), including 68.4 percent (13-of-19) from three-point range in Miami’s last three contests.

Seven-footer Whiteside is listed as questionable this evening due to a badly sprained ankle. However, when he’s able to answer the bell, he’s often proven to be a game-changer, as he comes in averaging 16.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and two blocks a game.   

To sum up, Chicago’s task is to come out fast, strong and play with passion at both ends of the floor. They need to apply pressure throughout all four quarters of tonight’s game. It’s imperative the Bulls take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and not allow Miami opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores. To get back on track, Chicago simply can’t afford to lose focus in any way, shape or form.

— Anthony Hyde