Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Magic (04.14.21)

The Bulls and the Orlando Magic play for the third time this year, with the winner coming away with the season series, 2-1. The teams split the first two played in Orlando back in early February. Since then, the Bulls and Magic came together to pull-off a major trade on March 25th, with Chicago sending Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr., along with a couple of future first round draft picks to the Magic for All-Star center Nikola Vučević and veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Both Carter Jr. and Vucevic have made a positive impact on their new teams, while Porter Jr. and Aminu haven't seen the floor a lot since changing teams.

Tip-off tonight is set for 7:00 p.m. CT from the United Center. Fans can catch the action on NBC Sports Chicago or on radio at WSCR-AM 670. A Spanish radio broadcast of the game can also be heard on TUDN, Univision 1200-AM.

Both the Bulls and Magic hit the floor looking to snap a couple of losing streaks. Orlando has dropped six straight games, while Chicago has been on the outside looking in for three in a row. Tonight, also marks a bit of a homecoming for the Bulls, as they've played nine out of their last 10 games on the road. Counting this evening, the Bulls will be home for three before leaving town again for two games.

Tonight's contest is really a must win for Chicago. It's game No. 54 of a 72-game season, so every outing from here on out carries major playoff implications. The Bulls are currently sitting in 10th place in the East, two games ahead of Toronto to qualify for an invite to the league's postseason "play-in" tournament. If the Bulls truly have designs on extending the season, they better show up focused and locked in right from the opening tip.

As a collective unit, the Bulls need to take control of the backboards at both ends of the floor and command the paint, forcing Orlando's offense outside, far from the basket.

Overall, Chicago has done a good job of guarding the three-point line. They currently rank No. 3 in allowing opponents 11.3 makes from the arc per game, and rank 6th in opponent shooting from long distance at 35.0%. However, besides successfully defending the three-point arc, the Bulls need to really tighten up defensively down low, as way too many opponents seem to make their way to the rim for easy scores without running into any resistance. The Bulls have to step up their willingness to get physical near the basket and deliver a harsh message to any and everyone who decides to drive the ball through the lane. It's long past due to put an end to defensive confusion, missed assignments and failing to rotate to help a teammate if his man beats him off the dribble.

Regarding Chicago's offense, in order for the Bulls to break loose and stampede, they must continually skip the ball from player-to-player. Quick, persistent passing forces defenses to overplay, scramble and commit unnecessary fouls. Free-flowing passing also makes it much easier to attack the basket and finish at the rim with dunks and other high percentage shots.

With the addition of Nikola Vučević Chicago has adjusted its offensive attack by looking to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often, compared to relying heavily on perimeter shooting. Vučević is one of the NBA's most effective and efficient scorers near the hoop. Besides having a golden touch at the iron, Vučević can also step back and knock- down three-pointers from behind the arc. His skillset makes it impossible for opponents to leave their big men under the basket to protect the rim.

Once Vučević steps away from the hoop and knocks down a shot or two from deep, his defender will have to abandon the paint and shadow him outside. That will make it easier for Chicago's primary ballhandlers, especially Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Tomáš Satoranský, and along the baseline, forwards Patrick Williams and Thaddeus Young, to cut to the hoop for layups, and with a whistle here and there, extra trips to the free throw line.

This is another reason why the Bulls must play together and be unselfish. The ball needs to skip fast and free among all five players on the floor. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the action is absolutely vital to winning games. Standing around and watching LaVine or Vučević go one-on-one is not a viable option.

All in all, the Bulls have done a terrific job of sharing the ball, especially of late as they have dished 25+ assists in nine of their last 10 games.

The bottom line comes down to this, for the Bulls to be successful they have to be aggressive and continue with that mindset throughout the night. They have to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way imaginable. That means they have to fight their way through screens, they have to go all out for every rebound and be willing to dive onto the floor for a loose ball. No shortcuts.

If the Bulls come in focused and determined, refuse to hang their head whenever they hit a rough patch, but instead meet that challenge head on by working harder, there's no reason they shouldn't end up as the last team standing tonight, and most nights, when the final horn sounds.