Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Nets (12.28.16)

The Chicago Bulls (15-16) and the Brooklyn Nets (8-22) meet for the second time this season, but in the first of two scheduled games to take place at the United Center. Chicago trounced Brooklyn by 30-points in the first powwow played in Gotham City on Halloween night, 118-88. Seven Bulls scored in double-figures, led by Jimmy Butler’s 22-point attack.

Not only were the Bulls’ starters playing well in that first meeting, posting a combined 62 points, but Chicago’s bench, led by Niko Mirotic (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Isaiah Canaan (15 points, 3-of-4 from 3-point range) also hit on all cylinders, contributing 56 points of their own. The Bulls out-shot the Nets, 50.6% to 34.4%, out-rebounded them, 58-45, and out-paced them, 24-14, in second-chance scoring.

Brooklyn hits the hardwood feeling pretty good this evening after veteran reserve Randy Foye knocked home a buzzer-beating three-pointer Monday to beat the Charlotte Hornets, 120-118, at the Barclays Center. Foye’s dagger ended a five-game losing streak as the Nets battled back after watching starting point guard Jeremy Lin limp off the court after he reinjured his left hamstring, the same ailment that cost Lin 17 games earlier this season. Brooklyn subsequently fell behind by as many as 14 halfway through the third quarter, but nonetheless rallied down the stretch to claim victory.

The talented playmaking Lin is a game time decision, but the Bulls will also need to keep close tabs on a number of his teammates, especially Bojan Bogdanovic, who led Brooklyn with 26 points against Charlotte, as well as Sean Kilpatrick who chipped in 23 and center Brook Lopez who notched 21. Lopez came on strong late, scoring 10 of his 21 points in the final stanza. The trio combined for 47 of Brooklyn’s 66 second-half points Monday night.

Chicago should also come into this evening’s contest feeling buoyant after beating Indiana, 90-85, at the UC Monday. Dwyane Wade led the way with 21 points, while Mirotic came off the bench again to post a season-high 20 to help snap a three-game Bulls losing streak.

December has been particularly chilly for Chicago as they have lost nine of 16 games this month, with two more to go after this evening’s contest before the calendar finally flips to 2017.

A major key to tonight’s game will be which team takes command of the paint. Chicago continues to rank near the top of the league in rebounding, entering No. 2 overall with an average of 47.8 per game. However, Brooklyn is also a solid rebounding squad, as they currently sit 10th in pulling down 44.6 boards a night. But, when it comes to glass cleaning on the offensive end, Chicago has clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack with an NBA-best mark of 13.5 a game, whereas the Nets are 22nd at 9.3.

Chicago’s clout on the offensive glass has also steered the Bulls to be the NBA leader in second-chance scoring (16.2 ppg), which in turn has greatly helped them stay afloat this season, as the team’s shooting touch has not been very good overall (27th - 43.7%). Still, as mentioned earlier, when these two teams met in Brooklyn in late October, it was Chicago who controlled the boards at both ends of the floor and out-notched the Nets by 10 points in second-chance scoring. Without a doubt, the Bulls are going to need to put forth a similar effort this evening to come out on top again.

Tonight’s game also features a reunion of seven-foot twins, Brook Lopez of the Nets and Robin Lopez of the Bulls. In the first family gathering, Brook scored 13 points and grabbed two rebounds while Robin posted four points and pulled down five boards. The twins have butted heads 14 times in the NBA, with Robin now holding an 8-6 edge. On the season, Brook leads the Nets in scoring with an average of 20.4 points per game, whereas Robin posts 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in 28.5 minutes.

Another interesting side note coming into tonight is the fact that Brook Lopez and New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis are the only two players in the league to have made 50-plus three-pointers and swatted 50-plus shots. Lopez has hit 51-of-142 (35.9%) from distance (already a career-high) and has so far blocked 51 shots, while Porzingis is 64-of-159 (40.3%) from beyond the arc and has knocked down 57 shots.

Under first year head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have become more free-wheeling offensively than they have been in the past. This year’s bunch really likes shooting the long ball, as they average the third most three-point attempts in the league (33.2 3FGA) and rank 10th in points scored (106.6). However that wide-open style has also led Brooklyn to being the NBA’s worst turnover team (17.2) and owner of a league-worst -8.2 point differential, as the Nets are giving up an average of 114.8 points a night.

In any event, besides taking command of the paint, the Bulls obviously are also going to have to pay close attention to Brooklyn’s snipers stationed all along the arc, especially the aforementioned Lopez (5.3 3FGA), Bogdanovic (4.9 3FGA), Kilpatrick (4.6 3FGA) and small forward Joe Harris (4.5 3FGA). Bogdanovic came off the bench for the first time against Charlotte Monday and posted 26 points in 27 minutes, which included hitting 4-of-7 from distance. Kilpatrick, a third year shooting guard, is averaging 15.7 points overall, and he also knocked down 4-of-7 from far away last time out.

Offensively, the Bulls have clearly proven to be at their best when they push the ball up the floor and continually attack the rim. Conversely, whenever they establish a slower pace, their offense unfailingly gasps for air. Thus for Chicago to stay on track tonight, everyone must stay focused and engaged. It is vital the Bulls relentlessly crash the boards at both ends of the floor and look to run as often as possible. By putting pressure on Brooklyn’s defense, keeping the ball on the move from player-to-player, and from side-to-side, and continually looking to make the extra pass to find the open man, Chicago can accomplish a number of positive things.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago’s team defense can’t afford too many mental breakdowns. Simply put, they can’t lose sight of shooters set up along the arc, nor can they lose sight of the ball or forget to rotate over to provide solid help-defense. Collectively, the Bulls need to fortify their blue-collar identity and not allow Brooklyn any open looks at the rim. Every pass and shot the Nets attempt must be contested in order for the Bulls to come away with the win.

—   Anthony Hyde