The Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets tip-off against one another this evening for the first time this season. The two will meet again in the Mile High City after the start of the New Year on January 17th.
The Nuggets come to town sitting atop of the Northwest Division sporting a 5-1 record. They took down the New Orleans Pelicans in Denver on Monday, 116-111. Former Michigan State All-American Gary Harris led the way with 23 points on eight-of-16 shooting. Harris' backcourt mate, Jamal Murray, also put 23 points on the board against the Pels, while veteran forward Paul Millsap chipped in 18 to go along with eight rebounds. Starting center Nikola Jokic also got into the fun with 12 points and 10 assists to post his fifth double-double in six games this season.
The Bulls, on the other hand, return to the United Center hoping to scrub some of the stink off a horrendous 149-124 thrashing at the hands of the two-time NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Chicago fell behind early and never made it a contest, trailing 44-28 at the end of the opening stanza and then 92-50 at halftime. Dubs sniper Klay Thompson broke teammate Steph Curry's NBA record of 13 3-pointers in a single game with 14 splashes of his own, finishing with 52 points in just 27 minutes of play. Thompson hadn't scored more than 19 at any time coming into the contest and had connected on just five-of-36 from behind the arc. The only semi-bright spots for Chicago on the night was the continued torching of the twine by guard Zach LaVine and the impressive outside touch of backup Antonio Blakeney, each of whom posted 21 points, as well as rookie center Wendell Carter Jr.'s 18 points and seven rebounds.
After finishing near the bottom of the league in defense last year, Denver looks to have turned the page through the first six games this season as they enter tonight ranked near the top in several categories: They are third in in the NBA in steals (10.3), third in overall defensive rating (101.4), fifth in average points allowed (105.2), sixth in overall rebounding (42) and eighth in opponent 3-point shooting (.333). And much like the Bulls, their roster is stocked with young players as the average age of the team is 24.6 compared to Chicago's average of 24.5.
One of a number of important keys to beating the Nuggets this evening will be Chicago's ability to wrestle control of the paint, as Denver does most of their (offensive) damage down low, averaging of 59 points per game inside the key, good for third in the league. The good news for the Bulls, at least so far this season, has been the team's ability to keep opponents in check under the iron, as they are fourth best in that category, allowing foes just 42.6 points per night under the hoop.
Denver's offense was rather spotty other night against New Orleans, so look for them to come out of the gates fast and strong in an attempt to rebuild their confidence. Defensively, Chicago will need to do a terrific job of effectively communicating with one another, calling out screens and keeping track of coverages. Besides shutting down the paint the Bulls will also have to pay close attention to the 3-point arc and aggressively look to run shooters off the bend. There were far too many instances the other night against Golden State where Thompson, Curry and Kevin Durant were allowed to set their feet and shoot uncontested shots from behind the arc.
So far this year the Bulls have the league's worst defensive rating and are giving up the third highest average of points per game. Opponents are also shooting an unacceptable 38.2% from three against them, which is an area where the Nuggets have been struggling this season, shooting under 30% as a team. Chicago simply can't allow Denver the chance to launch uncontested jumpers from anywhere on the floor, especially so with regards to Gary Harris, without paying some sort of price.
Offensively, the Bulls need to consistently spread out in order to open up the middle of the floor and draw Denver's defense away from the paint and to the perimeter. It is also vital the Bulls freely share the ball with each other, making sure everyone gets involved in the action. They cannot afford to allow the offense to breakdown into a series of one-on-one matchups. For it to run smoothly the ball has to crisply jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side, making the Nuggets continually shift and expend extra energy.
Lastly the Bulls have to come out of the gates in aggressive fashion, taking advantage of every opportunity to attack the rim by driving the ball deep into the paint.