Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Nuggets (03.19.21)

The Bulls and the Denver Nuggets meet up for the second and final time this season in the Mile High City. The teams met in Chicago on March 1st, where the Nuggets fended off a second half Chicago rally to win 118-112.

Denver's Nikola Jokić just missed recording a triple-double, dominating play in scoring a game-high 39 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and handing out 9 assists. The three-time All-Star came up big down the stretch, scoring 17 points in the fourth to help the Nuggets stay afloat after Chicago went on a 21-5 rampage to close the third and open the final quarter. Chicago's electric run didn't just bring them within shouting distance, but they actually stampeded past the Nuggets to take the lead early in the fourth. Then with 9 minutes left on the clock the Bulls found themselves ahead 95-89, but Jokić took it upon himself to lead his team across the finish line for the win.

Jamal Murray (24 points) and Michael Porter Jr. (17 points and 15 rebounds) also played starring roles for the Nuggets, as Chicago All-Star Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 23 points and 9 rebounds. Coby White also registered a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Denver comes in tonight riding a wave of momentum having won eight of their last 10, including blowing out the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday, 129-104.

Jokić had 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for a triple-double, while Michael Porter Jr. added 28 points, and Will Barton chipped in 23. Jokić now has 10 triple-doubles this season and 51 overall. He also had his 228th double-double to move one past Dikembe Mutombo for the franchise record. He leads the NBA in double-doubles this season with 36 in 40 games.

The Bulls, on the other hand come into tonight looking to bounce back after blowing a 23-point second quarter lead against San Antonio on Wednesday, falling to the Spurs, 106-99.

Chicago got off to a great start, owning a 31-17 edge after one quarter, and holding the Spurs to their lowest scoring half of the season, leading 58-40 at the break. San Antonio was able to whittle the Bulls' edge a bit in the third, trailing by 13 heading into the fourth, 80-67. That's when the wheels came off, as the Spurs went on a 12-0 run to draw within a point, before Chicago countered with a 9-2 run of their own. But the Bulls' cushion didn't last long as the Spurs kicked it back into gear, and this time they didn't slow down, reeling off 17 straight points to take the lead for good, eventually outscoring Chicago 39-19 in the final stanza.

Spurs big man, Jakob Poeltl, tied a career high with 20 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, while Derrick White scored 17 — nine points in the final quarter. Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Patty Mills each scored 14. Mills also had two steals.

Zach LaVine led Chicago with 29 points after scoring 40 the previous night in a win over Oklahoma City. Thaddeus Young, playing his 1,000th game, also scored 16. And Bulls rookie Patrick Williams grabbed a personal-best 14 rebounds.

A major factor in the outcome of the game was the Bulls made 8 of only 9 free throws attempted for the entire night. And LaVine — with three attempts — was the only Chicago starter to get to the line.

Chicago was also careless with the ball again, turning it over 17 times, while the Spurs committed nine. The teams matched each other in the paint, scoring 48 apiece, but the Spurs bettered Chicago 18-15 in second chance scoring. The Spurs also outscored the Bulls 17-4 in transition.

In order for Chicago to win they have to continue doing a great job of running shooters off the 3-point line. So far, they've been able to limit foes to just 11.3 makes, and a rather ordinary 34.5%, both good for 3rd-best in the league.

Denver is not shy when it comes to shooting from downtown, launching 34.7 three-balls and connecting 38.8% of the time. Thus, the Bulls will need to pay attention tonight, making it difficult for the Nuggets to impact the game from deep.

Denver's most prolific gunners are Jamal Murray (252 3FGA / 39.7%), Porter Jr. (168 3FGA / 42.3%), Barton (164 3FGA / 40.9%) and Jokić (145 3FGA / 41.4%). Thus, the Bulls will certainly have their hands full defending the 3-point arc this evening.

A primary Chicago goal every night is to be aggressive and get off to fast starts. Chicago's roster is blessed with youth and athleticism. When the Bulls show up hungry and come out of the gates playing physical, and consistently look to attack the rim at both ends of the floor, good things usually happen.

For Chicago's offense to flow, the ball must freely jump from player-to-player. Quick, decisive passing forces defenses to overreact and breakdown. Smart sharing of the ball also helps to open driving lanes to the rim and generate clean looks for shooters stationed outside. The most important thing the Bulls cannot allow is for their offense to slow down or allow any one player to attempt to take on the defense by himself. Unselfish sharing of the ball along with continuous player movement, in and out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc, is crucial to producing an efficient and effective pace.

Chicago must also take care of the ball by cutting down turnovers. Winning teams don't toss the ball away 17 times. If you bring that number down to no more than a dozen per game, you'll give yourself a far better chance to come out on top at the end of the night, then not.

Besides shutting down the arc defensively, Chicago must also not allow free passage to the hoop through the paint, or allow Denver to control the boards, which would give them opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores. Collectively, the Bulls have to hit the boards hard in order to limit Denver's second-chance scoring opportunities.

If the Bulls storm out of the gate from the start and play a free-flowing unselfish game, making sure everyone gets involved in the action, they should be able to keep the contest close down the stretch and possibly pull off a major upset on the road against one of the NBA's true title contending teams.