Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Heat (12.10.16)

Tonight the Bulls (12-10) and the Miami Heat (7-16) tip-off in the second of three meetings scheduled for this season. In the first get together played a month ago down in South Florida, Chicago came away with a hard fought 98-95 victory. Jimmy Butler was the Bulls’ high scorer that night with 20 points, while center Robin Lopez chipped in 16 and nine rebounds and point guard Rajon Rondo added another 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Dwyane Wade, who finished with 13 points in his first game against his old team, knocked down two clutch free throws with just 13.7 seconds remaining to seal the victory. The game itself featured 19 lead changes and 14 ties, as neither the Bulls nor the Heat at any time led by more than eight points.

Miami limps into town feeling battered and bruised after getting thumped 114-84 by the defending NBA Champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers last night in Cleveland. Veteran forward Derrick Williams scored 17 points to lead the shorthanded Floridians, who were only able to dress eight players. Last night’s loss was Miami’s fourth in a row and eighth over its last 11 games. The Heat are currently dealing with a lot of injuries to a number of key rotational players, as Justice Winslow, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Luke Babbitt were unable to answer the bell last night in Cleveland and are once again listed as questionable for this evening’s contest. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Miami is lacking serious firepower as 7’0” center Hassan Whiteside (17.2 points, 14.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks), and guards Goran Dragic (17.8 points and 6.4 assists) and Tyler Johnson (13 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists) look to be in good health tonight, and each is eager to inflict some damage against the Bulls.

Whiteside is a game-changing, double-double machine. He’s recorded double-digit points and rebounds in 17 of 23 games so far this season. Since missing a couple of games at the end of November with an elbow injury, Dragic has gone on to average 23.4 points, nine assists and 4.4 rebounds while Tyler Johnson ably fills Miami’s 6th man role. The 6’4” wing out of Fresno State is a tough-minded, physical and fearless player who always looks to attack the rim.

The Bulls come into tonight aiming to continue building momentum after knocking off San Antonio, 95-91, Thursday at the United Center. Wade led Chicago’s attack with 20 points, while Butler scored 13 points, all in the second half, and Rondo came within an assist of posting his second triple-double as a Bull (12 points, nine assist and 10 rebounds).

Chicago is in the midst of a very busy stretch, as tonight marks their seventh game in the last 11 days.

A vital key this evening will be the Bulls’ willingness to play a physical game, especially down low in hope of negating Whiteside’s talents. Chicago currently ranks 2nd in the league rebounding (48.6), whereas Miami sits just outside the top 10 with a mark of 44.3. The Bulls can really make an impact on the offensive glass, as they continue to be the NBA leaders in that category, snaring 13.5 offensive rebounds a night, which has helped them to outscore opponents 347-271 in second-chance points.

Offensively, Chicago has to look to push the ball up the floor and stay on the attack. The Bulls’ offense begins to sputter whenever they slow the pace and the ball gets stuck in anyone’s hands for too long.

Chicago started the season in fine fashion by persistently crashing the boards and immediately getting out on the break, keeping the ball on the move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When the Bulls played that way, opponents had a hard time setting up defensively. Lately though, Chicago has fallen into the habit of slowing down and playing more of an isolation game, where the ball isn’t shared as freely while players look to beat defenders one-on-one. However, the Bulls have clearly have been most effective this season whenever they establish a fast pace by aggressively running the floor, forcing the defense to scramble.

All in all, Chicago has done a superb job of taking command of the paint and getting to the free throw line, as they own a +5.5 rebounding edge and have outscored foes 445-293 at the charity stripe. In particular, Jimmy Butler has been nothing short of brilliant in this area, as he comes into tonight ranked third in the league in free throws made per game (8.6) and fifth in free throws attempted (9.7). The two-time All-Star is enjoying a breakout season, averaging a career-high 25.4 points per game and connecting at a remarkable rate of .887% from the line.

In short, the Bulls are going to have to come out focused and determined. Even though the Heat are shorthanded and stuck in a rut, the Bulls cannot afford to ease off the gas. Defensively, Chicago must stay motivated and tied together, closing down paths to the basket. Miami always tries to exploit its wealth of athleticism by playing fast and loose. The Bulls are going to have to do a great job of working together by never losing sight of the ball and/or their man. Chicago has to stay aggressive in every conceivable way in order to stay on track.