The Chicago Bulls are back on the road tonight to start a three-game trek, with the first stop a two-games in three days visit to Miami. After Monday night's contest against the Heat, Chicago travels to Gotham City to catch up with the Knicks to close out the season series on Wednesday.
Including tonight's tilt there are only 13 games left on the Bulls' docket for the 2020-21 season. Chicago is currently a game behind Washington for 10th in the Eastern Conference, a spot that would award the winner in invite to the NBA's play in tournament and a chance to compete in the postseason. It would be the Bulls' first playoff appearance since 2017. So, every game from here on out is absolutely vital for the team's playoff hopes.
Chicago is currently riding a wave of momentum after thoroughly destroying the Charlotte Hornets at the United Center this past Thursday.
Nikola Vučević scored 18 points and matched a season-high with 16 rebounds, as Coby White and Thaddeus Young scored 18 apiece, to lead the Bulls to a 108-91 victory.
It marked the third time in the last four games Chicago has held an opponent to under 100 points – a first for this season.
The Bulls built a 14-point halftime lead and put this one out of reach in the third quarter to win their third in four games.
Held to a season-low nine points in a lopsided loss at Cleveland the previous night, Vučević, a two-time All-Star center, asserted himself in a big way against the Hornets, hitting 8 of 13 from the field while handing out six assists, to go along with the aforementioned game-high 16 rebounds.
White also hit four 3-pointers while playing turnover-free ball, and Young did what he's basically done all season, that is to come off the bench to provide a spark, as he connected on 8 of 10 from the field to lead Chicago's second unit.
Devonte' Graham led Charlotte with 16 points, and Miles Bridges scored 13 as the Hornets lost for the sixth time in seven games.
Miami takes the floor tonight playing the second of a back-to-back after falling in Atlanta last night, 118-103. The Hawks played without two of its top three players, as the team's leading scorer, Trae Young, and the NBA's top rebounder, Clint Capela, both sat out nursing injuries. However, the Hawks still proved too much as Bogdan Bogdanović scored 21 points and John Collins added 20 to lead Atlanta.
The Hawks began the game as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and improved to 33-27 after winning for the 10th time in the last 13 games.
Atlanta got a combined 47 points from reserves Brandon Goodwin, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams.
Miami, which had won three straight following a three-game skid, dropped to 31-29 after making just three field goals in the fourth quarter. The Heat began the game No. 7 in the East, but they trailed by a dozen points, the game's first double-digit lead, after Atlanta's Lou Williams hit a 3 with 9:45 remaining. Williams followed that act by stealing the ball and hitting a layup to make it 103-89, as the Heat cooled considerably the rest of the way.
Miami's Kendrick Nunn finished with 21 points, thanks to five 3-pointers. Former Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler scored 18, and Bam Adebayo had 16 for Miami.
The first time the Bulls and Heat tipped off, Miami came away with a 101-90 victory back on March 12th in Chicago. Butler led the Heat with 28 points, while Zach LaVine paced Chicago's scoring with 30.
As for this evening, the Bulls' main task will be to shut down the paint. For the most part Chicago has lived at the bottom of the league when it comes to defending the rim. Opponents have seemingly enjoyed a free pass while facing very little resistance. Chicago currently ranks 27th out of 30 teams in allowing 50.1 points a game in the paint. Although the Heat doesn't often light up the scoreboard down low (they rank 25th in paint points per game with an average of 43.9), they do have a couple of high-powered weapons in Butler and Adebayo who are very capable of making a major impact at the iron if granted an opportunity.
As he often did in his six seasons with the Bulls, Butler loves drawing contact at the basket and making his way to the free throw line. This season he's getting to the stripe on average of 7.8 per game and converts 85.8% of the time.
Adebayo, a long-limbed, 3rd-year, 6'9 pivot, is enjoying his best season, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds while shooting 56.7% from the floor. He gets to the line 5.7 times a game and makes 80.2%. Although Adebayo isn't a serious outside scoring threat, he shouldn't be left alone.
Defensively, Butler and Adebayo anchor the Heat's protection efforts, as Miami is No. 1 in allowing opponents only 40.6 points in the paint. So, the Bulls definitely have their work cut out for them when they attempt to attack the basket.
Defensively for Chicago, the best way to improve is to do a far better job of communicating and understanding the proper times to rotate when an opponent frees himself from his defender and is attacking the hoop.
As a collective unit, Chicago must take the floor each and every game sporting a feisty attitude and be willing to play with an edge. They need to deliver a message that whenever anyone thinks about driving the ball to the rim against them, it won't be a pleasant experience.
Another critical key for Chicago is to command the boards at both ends of the floor. It's important to force opponents to operate far away from the basket, denying them opportunities to pack on points in transition.
Offensively, the Bulls must continue to be unselfish by constantly passing the ball from player-to-player and skipping it from side-to-side. Free-flowing movement puts a great deal of pressure on defenses to react, and if both ball and player movement proves relentless enough, defenses frequently crack and fall apart. Fluid ball movement also makes it easier to find open paths to the basket and opportunities to finish at the rim with high percentage shots. It also keeps everyone in rhythm with the flow of the game.
Nikola Vučević's recent addition has allowed the Bulls to adjust its offense at the beginning of games. The Bulls look to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often as he's one of the league's most efficient scorers.
Besides having a velvet touch at the cup, Vučević is capable of stepping behind the three-point arc and knocking down shots. He's currently shooting 41.4% from distance, firmly placing him in the top 15 in the league.
Vučević's skillset also makes it impossible for opposing centers to root themselves under the basket. Once Vučević steps outside and hits from deep, his defender must abandon the paint to shadow him up top. That obviously will make life easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.
All in all, for the Bulls to succeed they have to aggressively zero in and maintain that mentality all throughout the night. The Bulls have to demonstrate a commitment to do whatever it takes to win. If they do that, they'll always give themselves a legitimate opportunity to come out on top at the end of the game.