Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Nets (05.11.21)

The Bulls are back home for three of the next four games to close the 2020-21 season. Tonight at the United Center, Chicago hosts the No. 2 team in the East, the Brooklyn Nets, for the second of three encounters this season. The teams will meet a final time Saturday in Brooklyn.

Chicago defeated the Nets, 115-107 at the UC on April 4th, tipping-off the three-game season series. Then newly acquired All-Star center, Nikola Vučević, posted a double-double of 22 points and 13 rebounds while fellow All-Star Zach LaVine scored a game-high 25 points in cutting down the Nets. Kyrie Irving posted a team-best 24 points and 15 assists to lead a short-handed Brooklyn squad, which played without stars James Harden and Kevin Durant, both of whom were sidelined with injuries that day.

Durant and Irving are scheduled to play tonight in Chicago, but Harden is still out of action with a strained right hamstring. Brooklyn hopes he'll be back tomorrow when they meet up with San Antonio. In any event, if not tomorrow, there's a good chance Harden's back Saturday when the Bulls and Nets close out their run at the Barclays Center.

Chicago comes into tonight looking to post its fourth straight win after blowing out Charlotte and Boston on back-to-back nights last week and following up those victories with a sweep of Detroit in the Motor City this past Sunday. The Bulls held each of those opponents to under 100 points.

Vučević posted his eighth straight double-double with 29 points and 16 rebounds against the Pistons, while LaVine pumped in 30 points and Coby White chipped in 21. LaVine has now scored in double figures in 101 straight appearances while White has been blistering hot from behind the 3-point arc, hitting 20-of-41 (48.8%) over his last four games.

Chicago's playoff chances are still alive, albeit barely, with four games left on the schedule, including tonight. The Bulls are currently 2½ games behind Indiana for 10th in the East. This season the Nos. 7-10 seeds in each conference are entered into a play-in tournament. Once the season concludes, the No. 7 seed will play the No. 8, and the winner becomes the No. 7 seed in the conference playoffs. The loser has another chance to keep its season alive with a game against the winner of the No. 9-vs.-No. 10 matchup to determine the eighth and final seed for the playoffs. Chicago holds the tie-breaker over Indiana should the teams finish with the same record, but the Bulls are definitely fighting an uphill battle. The best thing they can do is win the rest of the games and see what Indiana does.

As mentioned above, Chicago's defense has been terrific during this recent stretch, and it'll need to be equally great tonight against the high-powered Nets, who average 118.2 points a game, good for No. 2 overall in the league.

In their last outing on Saturday in Denver, Brooklyn fought back from a 21-point deficit to defeat the Nuggets, 125-119. Kevin Durant scored 33 points, including five free throws over the last 21 seconds, and Kyrie Irving added 31.

If the Bulls are going to overcome Brooklyn, they'll have to defend the 3-point arc with a vengeance as well as win the battle of the boards and continue to do a great job of helping each other out defensively. Open communication, rotating when needed and staying in front of their assigned man when the Nets have the ball are all vital keys to winning tonight's contest.

Offensively, nothing really needs to change, as the Bulls have done a great job this season by freely passing the ball from player-to-player and skipping it from side-to-side. Swift, unrelenting passing, coupled with continuous ball and player movement places a great deal of pressure on the defense to react, and if that burden goes on long enough, defenses often break down. Non-stop passing also helps to free up driving lanes through the paint and allows for high percentage shots at the rim.

In order for the Bulls to knock off Brooklyn for a second straight time they'll have to play with an aggressive attitude for all 48 minutes. They have to commit to battle tooth and nail at both ends of the floor. They also have to stay focused, poised, and stubbornly defend their basket. Chicago's guards must fight their way through and over screens and not shy away by looking to slip under.

The Bulls really need to sport this hardnosed mindset every game from here on out. Including tonight there are just four left on the schedule, and longshot or not, Chicago is still in the hunt for the postseason. If the Bulls employ this approach, they'll keep their playoff hopes alive for at least one more day.