The Bulls return home for an Easter Sunday matinee against the top team in the East, the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, for the first of three games scheduled between the two teams this season. Chicago comes in looking to end a rough six-game losing streak, while the Nets are on the other side of the table, shooting to extend its current four-game winning streak to five with another victory today.
In a season that tipped off with high expectations for the Nets with the pairing of superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the subsequent moves the team has been able to pull off has fired up the excitement level of Flatbush hoop fans to the point of anything less than an NBA title will be a disaster. Not only are Irving and Durant (when healthy) two of the league's most talented offensive powerhouses, the in-season adds of three-time scoring champ and 2107-18 MVP James Harden, along with six-time All-Star Blake Griffin and most recently, seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge makes Brooklyn the clear-cut frontrunner to capture all the gold.
Harden has been absolutely spectacular since joining the team, as Brooklyn's record was a rather pedestrian 7-6 before his arrival and 27-9 ever since. Nicknamed "The Beard," Harden averages 26.1 points and leads the league in assists at 11.1, as well as minutes per game at 37.9. He's recorded 12 triple-doubles, second only to DC's Russell Westbrook who has 18. He has 31 double-doubles – the same as Bulls' center Nikola Vučević.
As for today, the Nets come to town nursing a couple of injuries. As of this writing it looks like Durant won't play because of a hamstring issue but he could be back tomorrow when the team returns to Gotham City to take on the neighboring Knicks. Harden's availability is also up in the air as he also has a hamstring issue at the moment. But Kyrie Irving will be in the lineup against Chicago. You may remember last year Irving put 54 points on the board against the Bulls, so there's that.
In order for the Bulls to win games, it's absolutely vital they show up focused and locked in at both ends of the floor. Defensively, Chicago has done a solid job of running shooters off the 3-point line. The Bulls rank 3rd in the league in holding opponents to 11.4 treys a game and sit 6th in allowing a below-average 35.1% shooting clip from deep. They'll have to double-knot their shoelaces today in this area because Brooklyn leads all of basketball in scoring at 119.0 per game. Chicago also must come together as a collective unit and refuse passage to the hoop through the paint and excessive opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.
A chief goal for the Bulls every game is to be aggressive and get off to fast starts and maintain their intensity and speedy pace all through the contest. For Chicago's offense to click, the ball has to freely hop from player-to-player. Quick passing forces defenses to scramble, overreact, and commit silly fouls. Clever, speedy passes also help to free up driving lanes to the rim for easy buckets, and extra trips to the charity stripe.
The Bulls cannot allow their offense to slow down or tolerate one player attempting to take on the defense by himself. Continuous movement, in and out of the paint and all around the arc, is crucial to establishing an efficient and effective offensive rhythm.
To come out on top this afternoon, the Bulls also need to take care of the ball, keeping turnovers to a minimum. Chicago's margin for error, especially when going up against one of the elite teams in the league, is extremely small. They don't have to play a perfect game, but close to perfect certainly would be nice.
If the Bulls sport a scrappy attitude and carry it over throughout the entire game, outhustling and outworking Brooklyn for every available rebound and loose ball, and work together when it comes to rotating and calling out on defense, they'll give themselves an opportunity to get back on track and regain some confidence.