Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Magic (12.21.18)

The Bulls are back at the United Center this evening to meet the Orlando Magic in the second of four games scheduled between the two this season. Just a little over a week ago the squads came together in Mexico City where the Magic pulled out a 97-91 victory. Nikola Vucevic recorded game-highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds for Orlando, including hitting the go-ahead jumper with 29 seconds left to boost the Magic to victory. Zach LaVine was Chicago's leading man with 23 points, but unfortunately he suffered an ankle injury on the last play of the game that has kept him out of action ever since. As of now, LaVine's return to the hardwood could be anywhere from one to four weeks away.

For the most part last week's contest was a back-and-forth clash with nine ties and five lead changes. Chicago's largest lead ended up being six points, while Orlando was able to get to 11. The deciding factor ended up being the battle of the boards, with the Magic capturing control of the glass 43-33 overall, and limiting the Bulls to only one offensive bounce.

Orlando's plan of attack is headed by the aforementioned Vucevic, who's comes into tonight averaging 20.6 points and 11.7 rebounds. The 7'0”, 260-pound pivot has led (or tied) the Magic in scoring 13 times, rebounding 22 times and assists six times.

Others Magicians worth keeping tabs on are high-flying forward Aaron Gordon (15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds), and heady shooting guard Evan Fournier (15.1 points, 3.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds), as well as a pair of former Bulls, D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant, who work together in running the point. Augustin has started every game this year and has been solid, posting averages of 10.5 points and 4.9 assists, while Grant comes off the bench contributing 4.3 points, 3.4 assists and a team-leading 1.03 steals per game.

If the Bulls, who have lost 12 of their last 14, are going to turn their fortunes around anytime soon, they are going to have to begin to play with a lot more grit and smarts. Too often they have come out of the gates fast and loose only to abruptly grow cold from the field and lose focus at both ends of the court. Rebounding and turnovers have grown into a chronic problem. In three of their last five games Chicago has turned the ball over 27, 18 and 23 times, and they have been manhandled on the glass in 13 straight contests.

Under recently appointed Head Coach Jim Boylen, Chicago's offensive blueprint is to slow the pace by grinding down the shot-clock to just under five seconds before attempting a shot to force opponents to burn energy on defense. For this scheme to work the Bulls have to get and keep all five players on the floor involved in the action. They cannot permit the offense to transform into a series of one-on-one matches. The ball must freely jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the defense to scramble and open paths to the hoop or uncover shooters hovering around or near the 3-point arc for uncontested jumpers.

Chicago also needs to be smart with the ball and avoid force-feeding risky passes that can get picked-off and ignite an opponent's offense by allowing them to quicken the pace by constantly getting into transition.

Another very important aspect tonight will be to limit Orlando's ability to score second-chance points. The Magic are blessed with a great deal of size and athleticism in Vucevic, Gordon and rookie center Mo Bamba. Chicago's post players, in particular Wendell Carter Jr, Robin Lopez and Lauri Markkanen are going to have to keep those giants off the glass as much as possible.

As a team the Magic are shooting 44.7% from the field and 35.5% from behind the 3-point arc. Seven times they've connected on 50-percent or better of their shots from the field, going 5-2, and knocked down 10 or more treys 21 times (12-9), including a season-high 20 on December 5th against Denver.