Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Magic (04.10.17)

Tonight the Orlando Magic (28-52) and Chicago Bulls (39-41) tip-off for the fourth and final time this season. For both teams this evening’s contest marks 80th game of the season. The Bulls took home the opening two contests, the first being a 112-80 thrashing at the United Center back on November 7th, followed by a back-and-forth, hard-fought 100-92 victory in their first O-Town trip in late January.

In the first game Chicago went on a rampage almost from the start, stampeding to a 15-0 run a little more than halfway through the opening quarter to take a commanding 37-24 after one. From that moment on the Bulls never looked back as they commanded the glass throughout the contest, ultimately posting a 56-39 rebounding edge and holding Orlando to just 23 percent shooting during the second half to notch the lopsided victory.

In the second meeting between the two, Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler proved to be difference-makers for Chicago down the stretch, as both took turns knocking down clutch jumpers to steer the Bulls to a 100-92 victory. Wade scored seven of his game-high 21 points late in the fourth, while Butler chipped in six of his 20 on the night during the same stretch.

In the most recent matchup played on March 8th in Central Florida, Magic point guard Elfrid Payton recorded his second consecutive triple-double with 22 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and a career-high-tying 14 assists to lead Orlando to a 98-91 comeback victory. Payton’s backcourt mate, Evan Fournier tallied 20 points and snared nine rebounds, while then newly acquired small forward, Terrence Ross (from Toronto) chipped in 14 points. Orlando, which trailed by as many as 13 points early in the third quarter before mounting a furious comeback, did a terrific job of keeping Chicago off the free throw line, as the Bulls shot a season-low 7-for-11 from the stripe. The Magic also seized control of the paint, outscoring the Bulls 44-36 down low, including 17-7 via second-chance points, as well as 27-5 in transition.

Tonight, however, is an opportunity for redemption for the Bulls in more ways than one. With only two games left in the season, Chicago enters this evening tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Miami Heat. The Bulls own the tiebreaker over the Heat, who like Chicago, play their last two games at home, but against top-seeded Cleveland (tonight) and 4th seeded Washington on Wednesday, while the Bulls are at home against Orlando and again Wednesday vs. Brooklyn.

So the math is fairly simple at this point – if Chicago wins both its remaining games, they make the playoffs. If Bulls beat the Magic tonight and Miami falls to Cleveland, the Bulls also make the playoffs. However, if the Bulls lose tonight and Miami wins both its games, Chicago is on the outside looking in when the postseason tips off next weekend.

Just about all of this mess could have been avoided had the Bulls taken care of business Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn — but why should NBA life be simple?

With Chicago up nine points with just 4:24 left to play at the Barclays Center, the Nets, naturally led by an ex-Bulls guard, Spencer Dinwiddie, went on a 10-0 run and eventually won 107-106.

Before the late flop, things were looking up for Chicago. Dwyane Wade had returned to action after missing a little over three weeks after injuring his right elbow on March 15th against Memphis. The 12-time All-Star was expected to miss the rest of the season at the time of his injury, but Wade blew past that dire prognosis to get back on the floor as quickly as possible in the hopes of helping the Bulls make a playoff push. Wade started and played 25 minutes against the Nets, scoring 14 points and snaring 7 rebounds. His workload is expected to increase tonight and possibly Wednesday in the rematch against Brooklyn, if the Bulls need to win that game.

In the meantime, though, Chicago needs to clean-up a few things — mainly turnovers and far too many blown defensive coverages — if they’re going to make the postseason.          

A fundamental sign as to what kind of evening is in store for the Bulls is how hard they are competing on the boards. Chicago currently is the NBA’s third best team in rebounding, pulling down an average of 46.0 per game, while Orlando ranks 20th with a mark of 43.2 per game.

In a breakdown of numbers, the Magic’s won-loss record currently stands at 12-32 when they lose the battle of the boards, while Chicago’s is 31-19 when they seize control of the glass.

As for offensive rebounding, the Bulls are parked at the very the top of the league, lassoing 12.1 offensive miscues a game, while the Magic are 17th at 9.9 per game.

Obviously a major benefit of being a strong rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that you grant yourself a number of extra opportunities to post easy scores from close range. The Bulls have done well in this aspect as they lead the NBA in second-chance scoring this season at 15.2 points per game, whereas the Magic are 18th with a mark of 12.6 per game. Thus, logic dictates if the Bulls are active on the glass this evening, that’s a pretty good sign they’re going to come away a victory.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven time and again to be at their best when they push the ball up the floor and continually look to attack the rim. Conversely, whenever Chicago establishes a slow, deliberate pace, their offense consistently grinds to a halt. Thus in order for Bulls to get on track, everyone must be willing to run up the floor while staying focused and engaged.

The truth of the matter is in order for any team to succeed, the ball has to be shared. The evidence is clear, especially when it comes to the Chicago Bulls, as their won-loss mark coming into tonight is 23-7 whenever they record more assists than the opposition.

As a team, the Bulls have really done a tremendous job of regularly attacking the basket and finding their way to the free throw line, while at the same time, keeping the opposition off the stripe. So far Chicago has attempted a grand total of 1,811 free throws while opponents have attempted only 1,521 — that’s a +290 extra free throw attempts in the Bulls’ favor. As for cashing in on those trimmings, the Bulls have connected 1,444 times while opponents have knocked in just 1,171 — which translates to a whopping +273 in Chicago’s favor.

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of getting to the free throw line this season. Not only is the three-time NBA All-Star averaging a career-best 24.0 points, but he ranks 4th in the league in free-throws made (7.7), 4th in free-throw attempts (8.9), while also converting at a career-best clip of 86.4% from the stripe.

Butler has been blistering hot down the stretch, recording a triple-double in Philadelphia last Thursday (19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) followed by 33 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the 3-point arc Saturday in Brooklyn. Over his last five games, the 6’7” swingman is averaging 30 points, 6.2 assists and 6.2 rebounds, shooting 51-of-98 from the field (52.0%), 10-for-14 from distance (71.4%) and 38-for-42 (90.5%) from the free throw line. To be sure, the Bulls will need another big game from him this evening.

To sum everything up, Chicago’s job is to come out fast and strong from the opening tip. The Bulls have play with an edge every time they take the hardwood. They must take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and look to run at every opportunity. The ball has to move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Everyone has to be involved on every possession.

Overall Chicago has to sport a dogged mindset. They have to be willing to outwork and outhustle Orlando in every aspect. Simply put, the Bulls need to get after it and stay after it all night long if they intend to make a return trip to the playoffs because every rebound, every pass, every shot, every possession and every defensive play matters.

-Anthony Hyde