Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Pelicans (02.10.21)

The Chicago Bulls play host to the red-hot New Orleans Pelicans this evening at the United Center. This will be the first of two get togethers between the Bulls and Pels, with the second and final meeting taking place in the Big Easy early next month.

Fans can catch tonight's action on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670 / TUND, Univision 1200AM) a little later than normal, as tip-off is set for 8:00 PM.

Chicago is facing a serious challenge over the next few weeks due to injuries to a number of key players. Lauri Markkanen became sidelined this past weekend and is out for a long stretch after spraining his right shoulder. Plus, the team had already lost starting center Wendell Carter Jr. for two-to-four weeks to a leg injury, while veteran forward Otto Porter Jr. has floated in and out of the lineup thanks to a bad back. On top of that, reserve wing Chandler Hutchison is now unavailable as he's dealing with some personal issues.

In the Bulls last outing Monday against the Washington Wizards, Chicago came out flat from the start, losing 105-101. The Wizards were without one of its top players (former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook), and was playing the second leg of a back-to-back set of games. And, oh yeah, DC had won only five games in 20 attempts up to that point.

Although Zach LaVine delivered another in a long line of impressive games in leading Chicago with 35 points and six assists, the Bulls looked slow, as if they were running in mud all night long. Washington continually made its way to the hoop, meeting little resistance, outscoring Chicago 54-40 in the paint. The league's top scorer, Bradley Beal, bobbed and weaved his way to a lot of open looks at the basket, and matched LaVine for game-high scoring honors with 35. But what was most frustrating was Chicago's slow-footed defense allowed Beal to live the good life at the charity stripe, where he hit 14 of 15 free throws in helping to nail the Bulls' coffin.

Tonight's contest is again the second of a back-to-back, but this time for New Orleans, who flat out destroyed the Houston Rockets last night, 130-101, in New Orleans.

Pelicans reserve guard, Josh Hart, went from being listed as questionable at the start of the day because of a bad back, to logging 40 minutes and putting up 20 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Pels All-Star, Brandon Ingram, also notched 22 points and Zion Williamson added 20, along with seven assists, five rebounds and a steal despite being limited to 20 minutes on the court thanks to early foul trouble.

Willy Hernangomez also added 14 points and 10 rebounds in a reserve role for New Orleans, while point guard Lonzo Ball capped a 30-minute, 15-point, zero-turnover night in directing the team.

New Orleans outscored the Rockets 38-20 in the fourth quarter, to win by 29 points. As a team, the Pels recorded 31 assists on 47 made shots.

As of late the Pelicans have looked and behaved like the playoff contenders most NBA pundits envisioned them to be at the start of the season. In their last four games, New Orleans has held opponents to an average of only 106.0 points per game while scoring 121.3 a night. That 15.3-point differential would rank them No. 1 in the league if projected over the course of an entire season.

During the New Orleans' winning streak, Ingram has been averaging 25.5 points, Williamson 23.8, and Ball 17.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Ball's also been shooting lights out from behind the three-point arc, with a scorching 55.6% success rate.

As for the Bulls, they come in this evening with a rather disappointing and frustrating 9-14 record after Monday's loss to Washington. Nine of the team's 14 losses have been decided by five or fewer points.

As talked about earlier, LaVine has been absolutely fantastic all season long. He is one of seven in the NBA, and two in the East, averaging at least 25.0 points (27.4), 5.0 rebounds (5.2), 5.0 assists (5.3) and 1.0 steals (1.2) per game. He's scored in double digits every time out, and has recorded 30 or more points 10 times, fourth most of anyone in the league.

As great as LaVine has been this season, if the Bulls are going to succeed in both the short and long run, others must look to step up consistently, and especially so now with the team missing so many key players to injury.

Defensive pressure will be vital in determining tonight's game. The Bulls need to stay poised, focused and alert, calling out and quickly rotating defensively, especially under the basket when dealing with a powerful force like Williamson. Chicago must also pay close attention to the arc, and aggressively look to thwart dead-eye snipers such as Ingram and veteran JJ Redick, who cash most of their checks from long distance.

Offensively, Chicago must continue to freely skip the ball, passing it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, forcing the Pelicans to burn energy on defense. The ball cannot end up stuck in LaVine's hands while everyone else watches. Others need to contribute in lessening the pressure on LaVine to score most of Chicago's points.

A key principal for Chicago is to always play fast, but also take good care of the ball in not committing silly turnovers. Continual player and ball movement, in and out of the paint, and all around the arc, will create a free-flowing rhythm and force New Orleans to scramble defensively.

Another important aspect Chicago needs to keep perfecting is its ability to communicate, and work together on both ends of the floor. With each passing game, the Bulls have gotten better in those areas, but there is still plenty of work to do.

To that end, Chicago must continue to hustle and never back away from a challenge. They must keep the heat on each night, and not allow any opponent to dictate the pace of the game and establish a comfort zone.