Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Nuggets (03.21.18)

Tonight the Denver Nuggets visit the United Center for the only time as the hometown Chicago Bulls look to bounce back after dropping two in a row, and three of their last four games.

The Bulls visited Denver back on November 30th and lost a 111-110 heartbreaker. Nuggets super-sub Will Barton proved to be a difference maker as he capped a career night (37 points) with a driving layup with 3.2 seconds left to play to win the game.

Denver was forced to take the floor that night without key players Paul Millsap (wrist surgery) and Wilson Chandler (back spasms), and then had to overcome the loss of star center Nikola Jokic, who badly sprained an ankle with only 44 seconds left in the opening half and couldn't return. Yet they were still able to squeak out the victory thanks not only to Barton, but also sharpshooting guard Gary Harris (21 points), and strongman Kenneth Faried (14 points and 13 rebounds).

Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez led Chicago with 20 points apiece, while starting point guard Kris Dunn added 19 to go along with five assists.

This evening marks the third contest of a two-week, seven-game road swing for Denver. The last time out the Nuggets lost an old-fashioned, double-overtime shoot-out to the Miami Heat, 149-141, Monday night.

Denver ran out to a 16-5 lead during the opening minutes of the game, but the Heat stormed back to pull within a point by the end of the quarter. Most of the rest of the night went back-and-forth, with Miami going up one at the half, and then holding onto its slim lead at the end of the third quarter. But then the Nuggets were able to knot the score at the end of regulation and after the first overtime. However during the second overtime the Heat pulled away to capture an eight-point victory in a game that lasted a little over three hours to complete.

The victory moved Miami (38-33) into the 7th spot in the East, but Denver's (38-33) loss left them two games back of the West's 8th and final playoff berth. After tonight the Nuggets have only 10 games left to play, so this evening's contest matters a great deal to them.

As for the Bulls, they return home after getting throttled by the New York Knicks Monday night at Madison Square Garden, 110-92. To be fair, Chicago was a bit shorthanded as Lauri Markkanen (back spasms), Kris Dunn (sprained toe) and Zach LaVine (knee tendinitis) stayed home nursing injuries. As of this writing Dunn has been declared out for tonight's game, however Markkanen and LaVine's status is still up in the air. Clearly, if all three end up sitting again, Chicago's in store for a steep, uphill battle.

Yet, having said that, for the Bulls get on track against such a formidable playoff contender it is imperative they not get off to slow start. However, if they do, Chicago has to stay calm and play with poise, looking only to the next play to make something positive come about in an attempt to rebuild their confidence.

Just as they have done a number of times this season, the Bulls also have to keep turnovers in check while at the same time swiftly advance the ball up the floor, making sure it jumps from player-to-player and from one side of the court to the other.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they consistently open up the floor, stationing shooters all along the 3-point arc, forcing the opponent's defense to extend itself out to the perimeter and free up space under the basket. Chicago's playmakers, in particular Dunn, Cameron Payne who'll step into the starting lineup in place of Dunn, as well as well as wings David Nwaba and Denzel Valentine, also need to get on board with setting an aggressive pace by taking advantage of every opportunity to attack the rim.

And speaking of the rim, as a team Chicago will have to crash the boards hard — at both ends of the floor — especially so on the defensive end, as controlling the defensive glass often leads to fastbreaks and easy scoring opportunities. The Nuggets can light up the scoreboard when they get into a groove. So far this year they are 19-5 whenever they post 115 or more points, but if the Bulls can turn tonight's contest into an up-and-down track meet, and surpass Denver's energy, the Nuggets' won-loss mark when they surrender 105 or more is a rather icy 17-30.

As a general rule, the Bulls want to attempt between 85-to-90 shots a game, with 30 (or more) coming from beyond the 3-point arc. In order to achieve these objectives they have to play a fast paced game. They must regularly advance the ball up the court in a hurry and keep it moving in search of an open shooter or an open driving lane to the basket. In order to generate those kinds of looks they have to force Denver's defense to constantly shift. In essence, they must bait the Nuggets to come outside to free up the paint.

In short, Chicago needs to come out of the gates fast and show up with an edge. To beat this battle-tested Denver squad the Bulls have to be willing to outwork and outhustle them in every way.