The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers get together this evening at the United Center in the first of four contests set for this season. The two will meet again in Indy early next month to close out a four-game Bulls road trip. Tonight also marks the front end of a back-to-back set of games for both Chicago and Indiana. After tonight’s contest the Bulls stay put and take on the Houston Rockets at the UC Saturday night, while the Pacers head down I-65 South after the game to meet up with Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics tomorrow at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.
The Pacers come into tonight sporting a 5-3 record after punching out the Knicks on Halloween Night, 107-101, in Gotham City. Indy trailed New York by four entering the fourth quarter, but two late threes from All-Star guard Victor Oladipo and some clutch plays by reserve forward Domantas Sabonis down the stretch propelled the Pacers to victory. Oladipo finished with 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting (3-for-9 from distance), while Sabonis tied his career-high with 30 points and set a franchise record by shooting a perfect 12-for-12 from the field. The 6’11 third-year pro from Lithuania also grabbed nine rebounds and recorded three assists in only 21 minutes off the pine.
Chicago hits the local hardwood at 2-6 after losing two straight and three of its last four. Monday night they got embarrassed in front of their home fans by the two-time defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, but the next time out they played with a lot more grit and fight against Denver yet fell short in OT, 108-107.
As hard as the Bulls played that night they learned once again that there are no moral victories in the NBA. Too often little things seemed to have gotten in the way of coming out on top. For example, a late (and we mean LATE) offensive rebound and put-back proved to be a dagger to the heart as Nuggets forward Paul Millsap’s game-winning, two-foot bank-shot trickled through the twine with just 0.1 seconds left on the clock. By the time all the dust settled on the evening Denver had grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and outscored the Bulls 23-8 on second-chance points.
Tonight’s contest against the Pacers could end up being a throwback to old school basketball. Indiana ranks third in the league in opponent scoring, giving up 102.6 points while scoring 108.8. Chicago, on the other hand is posting 109.9 points but gives way to 118.4. However, last Saturday in Atlanta the Bulls buckled down defensively and held the Hawks to 85 points and also kept Denver under 100 in regulation on Wednesday.
Tonight the Bulls will obviously need to keep close tabs on Oladipo, who once again is enjoying All-Star season, averaging 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists while hitting better than 40 percent from downtown. Another shooter Chicago will need to pay attention to is veteran forward Bojan Bogdanovic who currently ranks third in the league in three-point shooting (51.6%) and averages 14.1 points a night. The 6’8 veteran from Croatia can get hot in a hurry, so it’s imperative Chicago’s wing defenders keep him within an arm’s reach at all times.
Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they establish a fast pace from the opening tip and continue to pressure their opponents to keep up with them. It’s important the Bulls hit the defensive boards hard tonight and get into transition as often as possible. Establishing a fast pace forces defenses to scramble and breakdown because they aren’t afforded time to set up and shut down paths to the hoop.
When the Bulls set up in the halfcourt they’ll need to spread themselves out all along the three-point arc to open up the middle of the floor and draw Indiana’s defense away from the paint and out to the perimeter. It is also vital they freely share the ball while at the same time keep turnovers in check. Crisp and steady ball movement again forces defenses to react and oftentimes overreact as the lines of communication tend to break down.
It’s also important for the Bulls to get everyone involved on offense. They simply can’t allow their attack to morph into a series of one-on-one matchups. For them to put points on the board the ball needs to hop from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the defense to constantly shift and expend energy and open up driving lanes to the hoop.
Lastly Chicago must aggressively charge out of the gates the moment the ball is tipped off and stay focused and determined at both ends of the court. Although they are missing four key players — Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine — to long-term injuries, Indiana isn’t about to grant any mercy or take it easy on the Bulls. Everyone that steps onto the court is capable of providing high energy and putting forth effort. The Bulls, battered as they are, need to play with an edge every time they take the floor. They have to be the first on the floor diving for a loose ball and the first to battle on the glass for rebounds in order to give themselves a chance to end up as the last team standing.