The Bulls are back home tonight after spending Saturday in Tampa, Florida, ready to take on the Denver Nuggets in the first of two meetings this season. The reason the Bulls were in Tampa over the weekend was because they were supposed to meet up with the Toronto Raptors who are making West Florida their temporary home due to Canadian travel restrictions. Sunday's contest ended up being postponed the morning of the game due to the Raptors not having eight players available per the NBA's health and safety protocols. Eventually the game will be rescheduled for later this season.
In the meantime, the Bulls and Nuggets are cleared to tangle tonight at the United Center. However, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic that struck in early March of last year, the teams didn't meet at all last season. The last time they did was during 2018-19, with Denver sweeping the season series, 2-0, for the third straight year.
In the most recent get together, the Nuggets showed no mercy in hammering the Bulls, 135-105, in Denver on Jan. 17, 2019. Jamal Murray scored 22 of his team-high 25 points in the third quarter to put the game on ice, while Denver big man, Nikola Jokić, came within two rebounds of a triple-double by posting 18 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
Neither Murray nor Jokić saw the floor in the fourth quarter as Denver led 103-73 after three periods and coasted the rest of the way.
Lauri Markkanen was the lone bright spot for Chicago as he delivered a game-high 27 points and 10 rebounds.
In order for the Bulls to win games this season, they have to do a good job of running shooters off the 3-point line. So far, they've been able to limit opponents to only 11.7 made three-pointers a game, and a rather ordinary 35.3% make rate, both good for the 6th best mark in the league.
Denver is not shy when it comes to launching from downtown, as they average 34.9 attempts and connect on 38.7%, ranking 5th in the NBA. Clearly the Bulls will need to pay close attention to the arc in order to make it difficult for Denver to have an impact from deep.
The most prolific gunners on the Nuggets are Murray (208 3FGA / 40.0%), second-year forward Michael Porter Jr. (130 3FGA / 40.0%), and Nikola Jokić (126 3FGA / 42.1%). Will Barton also won't pass up an opportunity to fire away (117 3FGA / 38.5%). So, the Bulls will have their hands full defending the 3-point arc.
Another primary goal for the Bulls is to be aggressive and look to get off to fast starts and maintain that type of pace through the night.
Highlighted by LaVine and White, Chicago's roster is blessed with plenty of youth and athleticism. When the Bulls consistently rebound the ball and get out on the break, good things tend to happen.
For the Bulls' offense to flow smoothly, the ball must freely jump from player-to-player. Quick, decisive passing oftentimes forces defenses to overreact and breakdown. Smart passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim and generate clean looks for shooters stationed outside.
Chicago can never allow their offense to grind to a slow pace or permit one player to attempt to take on the defense by himself. Continuous ball and player movement, in and out of the paint and all around the arc, is crucial in establishing an efficient, free-flowing rhythm.
In order to knockout one of the NBA's top teams, Chicago must do a great job of taking care of the ball, limiting turnovers to no more than a dozen. They also must close down the paint. They cannot allow open paths to the cup. Jokić is a rare player in that he can flat out dominate both inside and out. As great a player as he is, the less potent poison when it comes to him is to force him to live outside and away from the basket. To achieve that goal, the Bulls need to collectively hit the boards hard at both ends of the floor and limit Jokić and Denver's ability to set up in the paint to cash in on second-chance scoring opportunities.
If the Bulls come out with a feisty attitude and aggressively charge out of the chute right from the jump, maintaining that intensity all through the night, they'll give themselves a good shot of walking away with a big win over one of the NBA's best.