Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Knicks (02.01.21)

The Bulls and the New York Knicks tip-off in the first of a mini two-game set tonight at the United Center. The series will conclude Wednesday.

This evening the Knicks are playing the second leg of a back-to-back after losing yesterday afternoon at home to the Los Angeles Clippers, 129-115. Chicago comes in having lost three in a row after Portland's Damian Lillard broke hearts all throughout the Windy City on Saturday with a clutch, buzzer-beating three-ball to beat the Bulls, 123-122.

During the offseason, New York hired former Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibodeau to lead the way and establish a championship mindset. As the old saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day – but eventually it was built, and nobody can ever accuse Thibs of not getting the most out of his team when given the opportunity.

New York has missed the playoffs seven straight years, but that streak could end this season. Thibodeau has his squad comfortably sitting in the Top 10 in defensive rating after the Knicks ranked 23rd a year ago. They're holding opponents to a league-low 103.9 points a game, and 43.1% from the floor. They do a great job of closing out on shooters and defending the perimeter, which has been a strength for Chicago this season.

The Bulls have been a well-oiled machine when it comes to putting points on the board, however they've struggled to take advantage of their firepower due to shotty team defense.

Chicago comes in averaging 115.7 points (5th) on 47.6% shooting (7th), and 38.9% (5th) from behind the 3-point arc, however, they're surrendering 118.5 points (28th) on 48.1% shooting (28th). Those numbers have delivered plenty of entertaining shootouts this season, yet the Bulls sit four games under .500 at 7-11. If they aspire to be a playoff team by the end of the year, the defense must stiffen considerably.

Another major culprit for the Bulls has been their inability to consistently take care of the ball. As electric as they've been on offense, Chicago turns the ball over at an absurd rate of 17.9 times a game, the worst in the league. If they can cut down to a more reasonable 12 to 13 turnovers, and tighten things up defensively near the hoop, the Bulls could make a lot of noise.

In order for Chicago to succeed they have to get off to good starts every night and freely share the ball, skipping it from player-to-player, and making sure everyone is engaged in the action. Smart and decisive passing also helps to open driving lanes to the basket and generate uncontested shots all around the 3-point arc.

The Bulls need to play fast, but they also can't continue to come up empty on a lot of possessions due to careless turnovers. They can't permit their offense to stagnate either by standing around and watching someone go one-on-five. Constant ball and player movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will generate a free-flowing rhythm.

A primary key for Chicago is to continue working to improve their communication skills and willingness to trust each other at both ends of the floor. Each and every game, the Bulls need to dig deep and deliver a hardnosed effort. They must never allow their opponents to feel comfortable.

As mentioned earlier, the Knicks can play defense, but in the 75 years the NBA has been in existence, no team has been able to toss a shutout. So, in order to win more often, New York needs its young backcourt of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to continue playing at a high level. Barrett, a second-year wing out of Duke, looks to have turned a corner as he is scoring consistently over his last ten games. In that span, he has notched at least 17 points nine times. Quickley, a rookie from Kentucky, has become a Gotham City fan favorite thanks to his running, one-handed floater. The 6'3 guard usually comes off the bench, and he's been enjoying a terrific week, posting 25 points or more in three of the Knicks' last four games.

Another key player for New York has been Julius Randle, whose offensive game generally involves setting up shop down low and muscling his way to the rim. The veteran forward is averaging career-highs with 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, and six assists.

As for tonight, if the Bulls can keep turnovers under control, and out hustle and out work the Knicks on the glass, as well as persistently battle after every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves a great shot to be the last team standing when the final horn sounds.