Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Nets (04.12.17)

“Just win, baby!”

    -   The late Al Davis, former owner and founder of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders

Hey Chicago, what do you say? The Chicago Bulls need to win today!

Welcome to Game 82!

For the Chicago Bulls (40-41), everything boils down to the final night of the 2016-17 season. If they defend their home floor and defeat the Brooklyn Nets (20-61) this evening, they’re in the playoffs. However, if they lose, the Bulls need to ask for forgiveness and pray to the basketball gods that the Miami Heat (40-41) lose tonight as well, otherwise Chicago’s season ends in a heart-stopping cut to black, just as the great HBO TV series The Sopranos closed a decade ago.

At the start of the day, the Bulls find themselves in a three-team race with the Heat and the Indiana Pacers (41-40) for the two final playoff spots in the East. Indiana currently has a leg up on both the Bulls and Miami by virtue of having a slightly better won-loss record, however if the Pacers fall to Atlanta, but Chicago beats Brooklyn, and the Heat knock-off Washington, the Bulls will leapfrog to the 7th seed, Miami will slide into 8th, with the Pacers getting kicked to the curb. But if Indiana and Chicago both win, it won’t matter what the Heat do as they’ll be the one left out in the cold.

Bottom line for Chicago: Just win, baby!

Having won six of their last eight games, the Bulls enter today’s contest on a high after posting a 122-75 victory over the Orlando Magic Monday night at the United Center. That 47-point thrashing marked Chicago’s third-largest margin of victory in franchise history, with the 75 points surrendered being the fewest allowed by the team this season.

The Bulls thoroughly dominated Monday’s game in every phase imaginable, outscoring the Magic 56-26 in the paint, 16-7 in second-chance opportunities, 14-6 in transition while also outrebounding Orlando, 54-37.

Furthermore, Chicago did a superb job of sharing the ball, accumulating a near season-high 33 assists while shooting a scorching 48-of-89 (53.8%) from the field, including 12-of-26 (46.2%) from distance and 14-of-16 (87.5%) from the free throw line, while the Magic were held to 29-of-84 (34.5%) from the field and 5-of-27 (18.5%) from behind the arc.

Lady Luck also appears to be smiling in their direction at the moment, as there’s a good chance Rajon Rondo might return to the Bulls tonight after missing the last three games with a sprained wrist. The 6’3” veteran point guard was able to practice with the team yesterday in a somewhat limited role. Afterwards, he said his wrist was feeling better and that he was hoping to get back on the floor if everything continues to progress. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as Rondo was playing some of his best basketball at the time of his injury, averaging 13.3 points and 8.7 assists during a seven-game stretch in which he directed the Bulls to a 5-2 record.

However, if Rondo isn’t able to answer the bell, Chicago ought to still be alright thanks to second-year playmaker Jerian Grant who has ably stepped up to fill the void in the starting lineup. Against Orlando the other day, Grant recorded the first double-double (17 points and 11 assists) of his career in directing the Bulls’ romp of the Magic. Over his last three games, the 6’4” ex-Notre Dame Golden Domer has put up averages of 15.7 points, 7.0 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 18-for-30 (60.0%) from the field and 6-for-13 (46.2%) from the arc.

A primary key as to who will come out on top at the end of tonight’s clash is which team takes command of the paint. The Bulls rank as the third-best team in the league in rebounding, averaging of 46.1 per game. However, Brooklyn also performs solidly on the boards, as they’re 11th, pulling down a more than respectable 43.9 rebounds. However, when it comes to cleaning the offensive glass, the Chicago Bulls are the best in the business as they wipe-up a league-leading mark of 12.2 each night, whereas the Nets sit near the bottom at No. 27, gathering 8.8.

Chicago’s offensive rebounding ability has also guided the Bulls to lead the league in second-chance scoring (15.2 ppg), which obviously has helped them stay afloat most of the year.

Need proof? Alright, here you go — the Bulls are 32-19 whenever they win the battle of the boards, 18-11 when they outscore opponents in the paint and 21-12 whenever they tally the most fastbreak points in a game.

The Bulls and Nets last met Saturday in Brooklyn, with the Nets pulling off a 107-106 upset at the Barclays Center.

With Chicago up 97-88 with 4:24 left to play, Brooklyn stormed to a 10-0 run to take the lead for good, led by former Bulls guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who came off the bench to notch a team-high-tying 19 points (12 of which came during the fourth quarter, including seven of Brooklyn’s last nine points scored in the game).

Sloppy ball handling killed the Bulls, as Chicago committed 17 turnovers that day, which Brooklyn took full advantage of by scoring 23 points off those miscues. Defensively, the Nets really amped up the pressure throughout the game, registering a season-high 15 steals, which marked the franchise’s highest total since 2014. Brooklyn’s bench also outscored Chicago’s 47-24, with Dinwiddie being the only double digit scorer among the Nets’ reserves.

Along with Dinwiddie, Brooklyn forward Caris LeVert rang up 19 points, connecting on a career-best 4-of-7 from distance. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also played a major role in the upset, recording a double-double with 16 points and game-high 12 rebounds, to go along with three assists and three steals in 30 minutes of play.

As for the Bulls, All-Star Jimmy Butler led all scorers with 33 points, including going a perfect 5-of-5 from the arc.

Under first year head coach Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn has become much more of a free-wheeling offensive squad. This year’s crew really loves to shoot the long ball, as the Nets average 31.6 shots from behind the arc each game, the fourth most in the league. They also rank 5th in long distance makes, hitting an average of 10.8.

However that wide-open style has also led the Nets into being one of the NBA’s worst turnover teams (No. 29 at 16.5 per game) and the owners of the league’s second-worst average in point differential (-6.3), as they give up an eye-popping 112.5 points a game.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their best when they consistently push the ball up the floor and repeatedly look to attack the rim. Conversely, whenever they institute a slow, deliberate pace, their offense grinds to a halt. Thus in order for Chicago to get into any kind of groove tonight, it’s essential that everyone is 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 fairly clear, especially when it comes to the Bulls, as their won-loss mark stands at 24-7 whenever they record more assists than the opposition.

As a team, the Bulls have also done a remarkable job of finding their way to the free throw line, while at the same time, keeping opponents off the stripe.

Coming into tonight, Chicago has shot a grand total of 1,827 free throws while opponents have attempted just 1,537 — that’s an absurd 290 extra free throws in Chicago’s favor.

As for cashing in on those extra fixings, the Bulls have converted 1,458 times at the free throw line while opponents have hit 1,183 — which translates to an almost equally whopping +275 in the Bulls’ favor.

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done a spectacular job of getting to the charity stripe. Not only is he averaging a career-best 23.9 points, but he ranks 4th in the league in free throws made (7.7), 4th in free throw attempts (8.9), while converting a career-high clip of 86.5% from the line.

Butler has also been white-hot down the stretch, recording a triple-double in Philadelphia last week (19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) followed by 33 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the arc Saturday in Brooklyn.

Over his last five games, the 6’7” swingman is putting forth 26.8 points, 5.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds, shooting 45-of-89 from the field (50.6%), 9-for-13 from distance (69.2%) and 35-for-39 (89.7%) from the free throw line.

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

If they truly intend to make the playoffs, the Bulls need to outwork and outhustle Brooklyn in every aspect of the game. Every rebound, every pass, every shot taken, every possession and every defensive assignment matters a great deal.

All in all, it’s pretty simple, just win, baby. Just win!


—   Anthony Hyde