Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Knicks (02.03.21)

The Bulls and the New York Knicks close out a mini two-game set tonight at the United Center. Chicago forward Lauri Markkanen posted a game-high 30 points, and Zach LaVine added 17 of his 21 points during the second half to lead the Bulls over New York, 110-102, in the first contest Monday. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Bulls but saddled the Knicks with its fifth defeat in its last six games.

Chicago got off to a fast start, thanks to a 14-2 run in the opening quarter because of Markkanen's hot hand. The 7-foot Finn ended up scoring 23 points in the opening half, knocking down 5 of 7 from behind the arc. New York rallied to make the game close by halftime, as Chicago went into the break, up 59-55. The Knicks held their own in the 3rd quarter, cutting the Bulls' edge to three-points leading into the final stanza, and later took the lead late in the game, but Chicago closed the night on a 10-2 run over the final 45 seconds to come away with the victory.

Markkanen's strong performance came on the heels of a 31-point night (vs. Portland) in Chicago's previous game. It marked the third time in his career he has posted 30+ points in consecutive games. Chicago's Coby White also had a solid night, hitting a clutch, tie-breaking three-pointer down the stretch, finishing with 13 points and six assists. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young also played at a high level, coming off the bench to add 13 points, eight assists and eight rebounds for the Bulls. New York was led by strongman Julius Randle who notched a double-double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and also dished seven assists. Knicks reserves Alec Burks (18 points) and rookie Immanuel Quickley also played well.

During the offseason, New York hired former Bulls bench boss Tom Thibodeau to lead the Knicks back to prominence, as the team hasn't made a playoff appearance in seven years. Through the opening quarter of the season, Thibs has his squad sitting in the Top 10 in defensive rating after New York ranked 23rd a year ago. They're holding opponents to 104.2 points (2nd), and 43.3% (1st) from the floor. The Knicks play a physical brand of ball, and they do a great job of closing out shooters and defending the perimeter.

As for the Bulls, they've looked like a well-oiled machine in putting points up on the scoreboard, however, to put it kindly, they've struggled defensively.

Chicago comes into tonight's contest with a record of 8-11 despite averaging 115.4 points (6th) on 47.6% shooting (7th), and 38.6% (5th) from behind the three-point arc. On the other side of the ball, however, the Bulls are surrendering 117.6 points (27th) on 47.8% shooting (26th). That kind of firepower has provided a lot of entertaining shootouts so far this season, but if Chicago truly aspires to be a playoff team, the defense has to get better.

Another big-time issue for the Bulls this season has been their failure to consistently care for the ball. As high-powered as they've been offensively, Chicago turns the ball over way too many times (17.6 – the most in the league). If the Bulls can somehow figure out a way to cut down their miscues to a more reasonable average of 12 to 13 per game, and tighten up defensively near the basket, they could make a serious run for a postseason berth and give a lot of teams a major headache.

For the Bulls to succeed on a nightly basis they need to get off to good starts and continue to freely share the ball, making it jump from player-to-player, getting and keeping everyone involved in the action. Smart, quick passing also helps to free up paths to the basket and uncontested shots all around the three-point arc. So far this season the Bulls have been terrifically unselfish, recording six games with 30 or more assists. The team had two such outings all of last year. But this time around, the ball has really been jumping, which has made the offense flow smoothly and opponents to take notice.

So, a major key in achieving success for Chicago is to keep playing fast, but as mentioned earlier, they can't continue to come up empty on 17 or more possessions a night due to careless turnovers. They also can't allow the offense to stall by standing around and watching someone attempt to go one-on-five. Constant ball and player movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will continue to generate a free-flowing rhythm and force the opposition to scramble and break down.

Another important aspect the Bulls need to keep working to improve upon is their communication skills and their willingness to trust one another at both ends of the floor. Each and every game, Chicago must go all out – from top to bottom – in delivering a hardnosed effort. They can't allow themselves to sit back and permit opponents to get comfortable and dictate the pace and flow of the game.

New York's roster is talented. Its backcourt consists of a couple of young, emerging stars in second-year shooting guard RJ Barrett and rookie playmaker Immanuel Quickley, who usually comes off the bench to spark the team. Barrett is putting up 17.8 points and grabbing 6.5 rebounds over 36 minutes a game. He hasn't been much of a threat from behind the arc, shooting just 27.4% from deep, but what he does best is get to the rim and finish with plenty of flash. Defensively, the Bulls need to keep him out of the paint as much as possible and force him out of his comfort zone by playing outside and without the ball in his hands.

Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky, has emerged as a Gotham City fan favorite thanks to a soft, yet deadly running one-handed floater. In the game the other night, the 6'3 guard came off the pine to post 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Another major player for New York has been power forward Julius Randle, whose offense primarily involves setting up down low in the paint and muscling his way to the hoop. The veteran strongman is enjoying an All-Star season, providing career-highs in averaging 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, and six assists.

As for this evening's game, if the Bulls can keep their turnovers in check, and continue hustling back defensively and battle the Knicks on both the offensive and defensive backboards, as well as fight after every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves the opportunity to come out on top of New York for the second time in a row, and inch closer to a .500 record on the year.