Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Pacers (11.10.17)

Tonight the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers get together for the first of four meetings this season. Indiana comes to town hoping to snap a four-game losing streak, while the Bulls hit the home hardwood also looking to get back on track after dropping their last two.

The Pacers rough stretch began last Friday in Philadelphia with a 121-110 loss to the 76ers, and continued with losses at New York, at home against New Orleans and at Detroit Wednesday night. In each contest Indiana held comfortable, double-digit leads heading into the second half only to stumble, getting outscored by an average of 16.8 points over the final 24 minutes of play.

Much like Chicago, the Pacers are also in rebuild-mode, as just five of the 14 players that make up their active roster have returned from last year. With that kind of turnover you’d think Indiana might have trouble coming together so soon into the season, yet this crew certainly can put points on the board, as they posted a whopping 140 against Brooklyn on Opening Night, and less than a week later hung 130 on Minnesota. In fact, just this past Tuesday against New Orleans, the Pacers torched the nets for 75 points by halftime, but as has been their practice of late they went cold once the third quarter started, shooting 30.4% from the field overall in notching 37 points the rest of the game to lose, 117-112.

Coming into tonight Indiana ranks 6th in the league in scoring (109.3 points), and 5th in shooting (47.8 FG%). They’re also pretty good at taking care of the ball as they rank 4th by committing only 14.3 turnovers a night.

Former Indiana Hoosiers All-American Victor Oladipo, who came to the Pacers from Oklahoma City as part of the Paul George trade over the summer, has been enjoying a breakout year, averaging a career-high 22.8 points while shooting personal-bests of 45.9% from the field and 45.3% from beyond the arc. Oladipo has been scoring from everywhere. He’s never been bashful about putting his head down and driving to the rim, but this season he’s expanded his game by launching 5.3 shots a night from behind the arc. Most likely Kris Dunn, Chicago’s best backcourt defender, is going to draw the assignment to shadow him. Dunn will need to do whatever is permissible within the law to make Oladipo’s life uncomfortable — at least for a couple of hours — to keep Indy’s top weapon in check.

In total, the Pacers boast six players averaging double-digit scoring. Thus the Bulls can’t afford to fall asleep on any of them, especially versatile big man Myles Turner (15.2 ppg), forward Thaddeus Young (14.8 ppg), nor fellow vets Bojan Bogdanovic (13.3 ppg) and point guard Darren Collison (12.5 ppg).

Defensively, Chicago has to communicate and stay tied together in order to make sure Indiana can’t find open looks at the basket. The Bulls lead the league in overall rebounding, grabbing 48.0 boards per game overall, and they’re 9th in offensive boarding with 10.7. The Pacers, on the other hand, are lodged in the bottom half of the league with marks of 44.6 (19th) overall and 9.4 (17th) off the offensive glass. This is an area the Bulls can and will need to exploit this evening. Defensively Chicago will need to keep pressure on the ball and force Indiana into rushing their shots and scrambling to get back on defense.

A primary key for the Bulls each and every night is to try to wrestle control of the boards at both ends. So far the Bulls have had a great deal of trouble scoring, as they’re dead last in shooting (40.5%) and second-to-last in points (94.3). Yet defensively they have been fairly stout, ranking 5th in allowing only 100.6 points scored and 8th in opponent’s shooting (44.3%). In order to have a chance the Bulls have to dominate the backboards as doing so will lead to a number of opportunities to post easy scores by getting out in transition.

As a rule of thumb, the Bulls would like to get up something between 87 to 90 shots a game. As part of those shot attempts they need to launch close to 34 from beyond the arc. Thus the vast majority of the Bulls’ shots should come from inside the paint or no more than 15-17 feet away from the rim. If Chicago can command the boards, they should be able to reach these benchmarks without much trouble.

To that end it is imperative the Bulls share the ball, keeping it hopping from player-to-player and from one side of the court to the other. To get open looks at the basket Chicago has to force the defense to constantly shift. They can’t allow any opponent to set up defensively and thus shutdown driving lanes to the rim. Freely sharing the ball also keeps everyone involved in the action. The Golden State Warriors are the best at sharing, averaging 31 assists a night. Thus it’s no wonder they also lead the NBA in scoring (119.1), field goal percentage (51.6%) and 3-point shooting (40.9%).

In short, Chicago’s primary task every game is to come out of the gates fast and strong at both ends of the floor. At no time can the Bulls afford to relax or slow things down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer they have to play with a chip on their shoulder and commit to outworking and outhustling every foe they encounter.