Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Pistons (03.22.17)

Tonight the Detroit Pistons (34-37) hit the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bulls (33-38) in the fourth and final regular season tilt scheduled for this year. Detroit has won two of the first three, the last of which took place just outside Motown in suburban Auburn Hills, Michigan, with the Pistons posting come-from-behind 109-95 victory. Chicago opened the game on a 13-4 run and stretched its lead to a dozen by the end of the opening quarter. But with 2:00 remaining before halftime the Pistons fired-off a 10-4 run to cut the Bulls’ lead to four.

Detroit sparkplug Reggie Jackson then shot a perfect 4-of-4 from the field and posted 10 points in the third quarter to help the Pistons knot the score at 79 after 36 minutes. From then on out it was pretty much all Detroit as the Pistons quickly ripped-off a 19-6 run to claim a commanding 14-point lead with just 3:00 minutes left in the game. Jackson again was perfect from the field, shooting 6-for-6 from the field in notching 14 fourth quarter points. Detroit outscored Chicago 58-40 in the second half, with most of the damage occurring in the paint. For the game, the Pistons dominated down low, outscoring the Bulls 58-32 in the post while also seizing the glass to the tune of 48-37. Jackson finished the night with 26 points, while forward Jon Leuer chipped in 16 and Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris added 13 each for the Pistons. Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 27 points. 

With just 11 games remaining for both teams, tonight’s contest carries significant playoff weight as Detroit sits in 9th place, a game behind Miami for the East’s 8th and final playoff berth, while the Bulls are 10th, a full game behind the Pistons and two games in back of the Heat.

Both the Bulls and Pistons are coming off tough-luck losses, with Chicago falling to Toronto on the road in overtime, 122-120, and Detroit losing on a last-second shot to the Nets, 98-96, in Brooklyn last night.

It looked as if the Bulls were going to post their second straight victory as they outplayed Toronto for much of the game yesterday evening. However, Chicago’s defense fell apart in the fourth as the Bulls stumbled and staggered, watching a seemingly comfortable 15-point lead evaporate over the game’s final 8 ½ minutes. When it was all said and done Toronto All-Star DeMar DeRozen led all scorers with 42 points in making sure the Raptors were the last ones standing. Jimmy Butler put up 37 points and snagged 10 rebounds for the Bulls but it wasn’t enough as Chicago lost to Toronto for the first time since December 31, 2013.

The Pistons on the other hand played the role of comeback kids in their loss yesterday. After successfully wiping out a double-digit deficit with just 2.4 seconds left on the clock, Detroit came up short at the buzzer when Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez knocked down a baseline jumper as the horn blared. Swingman Tobias Harris led Detroit with 24 points, followed by sharpshooter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s 19. Motown strongman Andre Drummond notched his team-leading 47th double-double of the season with 13 points and 17 rebounds, but was forced to leave the game midway through the final quarter after appearing to injure a knee. Drummond’s availability for tonight’s contest is up-in-the-air as of this writing.

A primary key for the Bulls tonight will be to come out fast and strong from the jump. The best place for them to start would be on the boards, as currently Chicago sits just behind Denver (46.3) and Oklahoma City (46.2) for the overall league lead, grabbing 46.0 rebounds a game. However that won’t be an easy task as it is expected starting center Robin Lopez will not be available due to a mandatory league imposed suspension after getting into a scuffle where punches were thrown with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka last night. There is also a real chance that reserve center Cristiano Felicio might also be sidelined after taking a hard fall and injuring his back late in the game. Felicio was eventually able to make his way to the bench but he wasn’t able to return to the floor. In their place fans most likely should expect a heavy dose of 6’11” newcomer Joffrey Lauvergne in the middle as well as smaller lineups where power forwards Niko Mirotic and Bobby Portis are on the hardwood together.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their most effective when they regularly push the ball up the court and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago’s offense to run smoothly the ball has to hop, it definitely cannot end up glued onto anyone’s hands for too long. Everyone on the court needs to be active and engaged. The proof is in the pudding as Chicago enters tonight averaging 108.4 points and 23.4 assists per victory, but over every loss they only muster 96.6 points and 20.8 assists.

To this end, the Bulls will have to routinely spread out and space the floor while at the same time look to exploit every opportunity to attack the rim. As a team, they have done an outstanding job of forcing opposing defenses to overreact and foul, sending Chicago to the free throw line far more often than most. So far the Bulls have drawn a total of 1,353 fouls and in turn have attempted 310 more free throws, and cashed 282 extra charity tosses than their foes.

Chicago’s chief assignment is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the court. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, they must play with a proverbial chip on their shoulder. Defensively, they have to communicate and stay tied together. They must persistently hustle back on defense, and collectively, they need to shut down every open path to the basket. As a team, it is vital they look to reinforce their blue-collar identity and not allow Detroit’s quick-footed, sharpshooting guards, in particular Reggie Jackson (14.7 points, 5.3 assists), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.2 points, 37.1 3FG%) and Tobias Harris (16.3 points, 48.6 FG%) opportunities to drive the ball into the paint or find wide open looks at the rim while setting up out on the wing.

A thorough team effort will go a long way to staying alive in a very heated playoff race.

—    Anthony Hyde