Tonight the Bulls meet up with the Miami Heat at the United Center in the first of three games on the docket this season. For Chicago, tonight’s contest is their second in three nights as they took on the Phoenix Suns at the UC on Wednesday. It’s also the beginning of another busy stretch as tomorrow night the Bulls will be in Minneapolis to take on the Timberwolves and then head back to the United Center to meet the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.
Miami comes to town hoping to create some positive consistency as they have lost six of their last eight and sit mired in 4th place in the Southeast Division with a record of 6-11.
Much like Chicago, the Heat has also been harassed with injuries to a number of key players. Former Bulls forward James Johnson just recently made his season debut after undergoing offseason hernia surgery, while shooting guard Dion Waiters still hasn’t made his way to the court after an ankle procedure completed almost a year ago. Then there’s starting point guard Goran Dragic, who has been in-and-out of the lineup most of the year with a creaky right knee. Earlier Dragic missed two games, played four only to be forced to sit the last three and is likely to be out again this evening. The 6’3, 10-year veteran is prime time player averaging 16.3 points, 4.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 30.8 minutes per game.
One Miami player Chicago fans know well who should be in the Heat lineup tonight is Windy City native Dwyane Wade. The one-time Bull and long-time Heat future Hall of Famer recently returned to the court after a two-week sabbatical for the birth of his daughter, Kaavia. Wade, who announced in September that this would be his last season is Miami’s third-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game. The Heat went 2-5 during his absence.
Besides Wade and Johnson, there are a couple of other Floridians definitely worth noting. Fourth year guard Josh Richardson leads Miami in scoring at 20.1 points per game. The 6’6” former Tennessee Volunteer brings grit and guts to the hardwood as well as explosive hops. He’s a legitimate, blue collar impact player at both ends of the floor. Believe it or not, Richardson landed in Miami as a second round pick in 2015. He’s shown himself to be someone who is always willing to mix it up under the hoop and quick enough to blow by most defenders in making his way to the cup with authority. Collectively, Chicago is going to need to force Richardson to stay outside of the paint most of the night and make sure there is a hand up in his face all night long.
Miami also employs a couple of big-time rim defenders in the middle in 7-footer Hassan Whiteside and backup Bam Adebayo. Whiteside logs most of the time in the pivot and is a double-double machine, averaging 13.8 points and 14.9 rebounds, to go along with 3 blocks a night. The knock on Whiteside is if things don’t go his way early in the game, he has a tendency to hang his head and lose focus. Like most big men, Whiteside, as blessed an athlete he is, doesn’t seem to like running up and down the floor a lot. He’s more than capable, and will do so — every once in a while — just not all the time. Chicago’s bigs, in particular Wendell Carter Jr., will need to keep Whiteside honest by aggressively running the floor to force him to keep up. They also will need to play fundamentally sound basketball by relentlessly forcing him out from under the basket when shots go up. Whiteside feeds off emotion. If he tastes success early, watch out. But if he doesn’t he can quickly become frustrated and become invisible.
Key for the Bulls this evening will be to come out of the gates hard and fast and never slow down. Too often of late they have started games in impressive fashion only to go ice cold offensively and that’s when panic suddenly sets in as players look to go one on one and make plays all by themselves. When shots stop falling, the answer isn’t to toss up contested jumpers from far away. The solution is fairly simple and often the reason they got off to a good start in the first place, which is to spread out in order to open up the floor and keep everyone involved in the action. The ball has to crisply bounce from player-to-player and from one side off the court to other. Offensively the Bulls are at their best when they play with passion and aggression. Everyone must be included and be willing to sacrifice personal stats for the good of the team. The Bulls simply need to refocus and try to set each other up for good looks at the rim, and also aggressively take the action directly to the iron.
All-in-all, Chicago needs to always show up with an attitude of outworking opponents. Everyone needs to bring energy.
As shorthanded as they are due to injuries to major players, the Bulls cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves. Instead they must battle in every way possible and send a message that when you play them nothing will ever come easy.