Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Heat (03.12.21)

The Chicago Bulls and the defending Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat are both completing back-to-backs this evening at the United Center. Last night the Bulls faced this season's No. 1 seed in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, here at the UC and got thumped, 127-105.

With two All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons sidelined due to the league's COVID health and safety protocols, the 76ers looked ripe for the picking, especially since the Bulls were finally back to full strength with the returns of Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., and reserve wing Chandler Hutchison, each of whom have been out of the lineup for very long stretches. However, veteran forward Tobias Harris took charge, posting a game-high 24 points to lead a balanced Philly attack in which seven Sixers scored in double figures to nab another road victory. Journeyman center Dwight Howard also made his presence felt in a big way as he came off the Sixers' bench and bullied his way to a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

The brightest spot for the Bulls was how Markkanen played after missing 13 straight games with a sprained right shoulder. The 7'1 Finn seamlessly stepped into the starting lineup to lead Chicago with a team-best 23 points, knocking down 7 of 7 from behind the 3-point arc. All-Star Zach LaVine also scored 19, ending a streak of 21 straight games of scoring 20 or more points, while Coby White chipped in 18, hitting 4 of 7 from downtown to go along with four assists and only one turnover.

Thaddeus Young was also a bright spot for Chicago, as the 14-year veteran came off the bench and delivered another heady performance with 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in under 18 minutes of action. It was the 15th time in his last 17 games Young has recorded double digits in scoring.

Miami, on the other hand was also at home last night taking on the Orlando Magic. Former Bulls star Jimmy Butler came within two rebounds of posting a triple double to lead the Heat to a 111-103 victory. Butler finished with game-highs of 27 points and 11 assists to push the Heat over the .500 mark at 19-18 coming into tonight.

The Heat and Bulls are meeting for the first of three matchups this regular season. Last year, Miami swept the season series, 2-0, and has currently won three-straight in Chicago. Overall, the Bulls hold a 59-56 all-time edge against Miami during the regular season, including a 35-23 mark at home.

Chicago's recipe for success this season is to get off to fast starts. Offensively, the Bulls must generously share the ball and make sure everyone is involved in the action. The ball has to jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side for the offense to click. Smart, decisive passing helps to free up driving lanes to the basket, as well as create wide-open jumpers from behind the three-point arc.

Overall, the Bulls have done a fantastic job of being unselfish, recording seven games of 30 or more assists. They had two such games all last year. They currently rank 8th in the league in helpers with an average of 26.2 assists per game.

On the whole, the Bulls have been lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 114.7 points (9th) a game while shooting a very impressive 48.5% from the field (5th), including 38.1% (10th) from behind the three-point arc. However, poor defense has been Chicago's Achilles heel all season long, as they are surrendering 115.5 points (25th) and allowing opponents to connect on 47.7% of their shots (25th). So, if the Bulls are to take steps forward and become a legitimate playoff team, they have to tighten things up defensively, especially down in the paint. Against Philadelphia last night, Chicago surrendered a whopping 78 points in the paint. It was the third time in their last four games an opponent has been able to score 60 or more in that area. This simply has to change.

Another major issue this season has been Chicago's failure to consistently take care of the ball. As high-powered as their offense has been, the Bulls turn the ball over far too many times. Last night against Philly the team committed 19 turnovers that led to 24 points for the Sixers. So, if they can focus a little better and stay closer to the range of 12 to 13 miscues a game, and their defense rounds into shape, the Bulls could make it to the postseason this year. But it is going to take a lot of effort to make that happen.

As mentioned earlier, a principal key for the Bulls is to play fast. But another vital part of the game they must continue to fine tune is their ability to effectively communicate and work together on both ends of the floor. As the season has gone on, the Bulls have gotten better, but there is always more work to do.

To that end, Chicago must continue to play with a feisty attitude and outhustle Miami tonight in every way. It is vital the Bulls deny Miami any opportunity to dictate the pace of the game or establish a comfortable rhythm.

If Chicago takes the floor with an aggressive approach, charging out of the gates right from the start, and maintains that type of intensity all through the night, they will give themselves a shot of knocking off last year's Eastern Conference Champions.