Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Lakers (01.23.21)

The Bulls return home this evening to take on the defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. Tonight's contest also closes the book on the season series, with Chicago looking to even things up. The two tangled in LA earlier this month with the Lakers escaping with a 117-115 victory. Chicago's Zach LaVine led all scorers with 38 points while LeBron James led LA with 28.

LaVine almost pulled the game out of the fire after rising up and launching a 17-foot jumper that would have given Chicago the lead with just 4.7 seconds to play, but his shot rimmed out and bounced out of bounds, sealing the Bulls' fate. Wendell Carter Jr. dropped a season-high 23 points, while veteran Thad Young added 15 off the bench, and Coby White chipped in 14 and five assists running alongside LaVine for Chicago.

In that first matchup, the Bulls were without Lauri Markkanen, as well as Tomáš Satoranský, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison, each of whom were out due to the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The Lakers were without All-Star Anthony Davis, who was sidelined with a right abductor strain, as well as fellow starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was nursing a left ankle sprain. All four Bulls as well as Davis and Caldwell-Pope are expected to play tonight, but as of this writing, Chicago looks to be without Wendell Carter Jr. for a second straight game due to a right quadriceps strain.

The Bulls pulled within one game of reaching .500 after swatting the Charlotte Hornets last night, 123-110, in Buzz City. Once again LaVine led the charge with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Markkanen added 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Coby White also contributed 18 points and eight assists, with veteran Garrett Temple providing an added spark off the bench with 15 points.

The victory over the Hornets was Chicago's third in a row, and seventh straight scoring over 115 points, matching a franchise record. The Bulls also continued their hot hand from the field, shooting 51.6% (49/95) from the field, notching their seventh game this season in connecting on more than half of their shot attempts. Over their last five games the Bulls are shooting a blistering .511 (225/440) from the field, and .422 (81/192) from behind the 3-point arc.

For the season, the Bulls have been one of the league's most lethal offensive threats, averaging an impressive 117.8 points (4th) on 48.0% (7th) shooting from the floor, and 38.3% (7th) from beyond the arc, as well as 80.6% (6th) from the free throw line. Zach LaVine leads the team in scoring at 27.2 points, good for 6th in the league. Forward Lauri Markkanen is second at 19.4 points and third in rebounding at 6.5 per game, while Coby White is next in line at 16.0 points, while leading the team in assists at 6.1 per game.

Defensively, however, the Bulls have been way too generous to opponents in allowing 119.3 points (28th) on 47.9% (26th) shooting overall from the field. If Chicago intends to be a legitimate playoff contender, the defense needs to tighten up considerably.

For the Bulls to continue succeeding on offense, they need to keep freely sharing the ball, striving for everyone to stay involved in the action of the game, which forces opponents to expend energy on defense. Smart, swift passing also helps in opening up driving lanes to the basket and generating open shots around the 3-point arc.

The Bulls must continue to play fast, but at the same time be consistent with the ball. They can't afford to slow the pace of the game down and attempt to go one-on-five. Constant player and ball movement, slicing and dicing in and out of the paint, will help the team get into a free-flowing groove and force opponents to scramble in defending the paint and hoop.

A primary key each and every game for the Bulls is to do a good job of communicating and trusting each other at both ends of the floor. With all due respect, the Lakers are a more talented/gifted team, but that doesn't mean they're invincible. Chicago can defeat anyone on any given night by delivering a gritty effort, especially when it comes to crashing the boards and defending the paint.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis make up one of the league's all-time best frontcourt duos. Both can take control of a game in a blink of an eye. But collectively the Bulls can give themselves a legitimate shot of shutting them down by consistently hustling back on defense and blitzing every now and then to disrupt their rhythm. With Carter Jr. likely out tonight, Chicago will need backup center Daniel Gafford to step up and provide grit and muscle on the glass as well as continue bringing high energy to the floor. Most likely Bulls Head Coach Billy Donovan will, at times, slide Markkanen down to center and ask veteran forwards Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr. to carry more weight than normal down low. Without a doubt, those three will play a major role in tonight's game for the Bulls.

The Lakers have looked dominant at times this season and are currently one of the best defensive teams in the game. Besides the brilliance of James and Davis, the team has also been very efficient on offense, with multiple players such as Dennis Schröder, Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell coming into their own.

There's a chance James might sit out tonight's game because of a nagging ankle injury. If he does, Davis is more than capable of picking up any slack as he's currently producing 21.1 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists, shooting 52.5% from the field and 35.1% from beyond the arc.

If Chicago can keep turnovers in check, and collectively take command of the boards, as well as persistently scrap for every loose ball and grab their fair share of long rebounds, they'll give themselves a shot of pulling off the upset and being the last team standing at the end of the night.