Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Pistons (12.19.16)

The Chicago Bulls (13-13) and the Detroit Pistons (14-15) meet tonight in the second of four get-togethers, this time at the United Center. The first contest between these two longtime Central Division rivals occurred at the Palace of Auburn Hills (MI) on December 6th where the Pistons pulled away late for a 102-91 victory. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler led all scorers with 32 points while Dwyane Wade chipped in 19 points and 8 assists. Detroit was led by Tobias Harris’ 22 points.

The Pistons fired fast in powering their way to a 32-21 edge in the opening quarter. The Bulls steadily chipped away throughout the second and third stanzas, eventually taking a 72-71 lead into the 4th, but Detroit caught fire again, thanks primarily to a strong push from its bench to run away with the win.

Chicago comes into tonight having lost three straight, and six of their last eight, while the Pistons have also met with hard times recently, losing two straight and three of their last four in blowout fashion.

A primary key in deciding who will come out on top tonight will likely end up being which team successfully takes command of the paint. Despite this recent ugly stretch, the Bulls continue to be among the league leaders in overall rebounding, ranking 2nd in the NBA with 48 boards per game, and first in offensive rebounding with a mark of 13.4. That stellar glass work has contributed mightily to Chicago also leading the NBA in second-chance scoring with a mark of 16.1 points a game.

Detroit, led by 6’11” big man, Andre Drummond (14.2 points, 13.7 rebounds), sits 12th in rebounding with an average of 44.4 per game. Individually, Drummond, however, is second in the league on the glass with 13.7 boards a night. In fact, so far this season he’s recorded three 20-plus point, 20-plus rebound games, while everyone else in the league has recorded only five. Since entering the NBA in 2012-13, Drummond has the most 20/20 games with 12. If you just look at rebounds, Drummond is also the league leader with 31 20-plus rebound games. Thus obviously, keeping him somewhat in check on the glass and in the paint must be a top priority for the Bulls. 

A problem for Chicago of late has been the team’s baffling offensive style of play. Earlier in the season the Bulls were clearly at their best when they relentlessly pushed the ball up the floor and aggressively went on the attack. However, lately they have stopped running the floor as often and instead have begun setting a slower pace, walking the ball up more and more. When they do that, the offense frequently sputters and bogs down. The ball no longer is shared freely and instead ends up in someone’s hands for far too long a stretch while the other four on the court stand around and watch. Chicago’s offense then tends to morph into isolation, one-on-one battles, where the opponent’s defense quickly adapts and collapses on top of the ballhandler, who ends up either trapped up top or pinned down in a corner, and then fumbles and loses control of the ball.

For the Bulls to get back on track, everyone on the hardwood and on the bench must contribute positively in one way or another. As a unified force, they have to get back to having the “All for one, one for all mentality,” the team started the season with.

The Bulls have to crash the boards hard at both ends of the floor and commit to running out on the break as often as possible, and also commit to keeping the ball hopping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When they established a fast pace and an aggressive offensive mindset earlier in the season, opponents had a difficult time slowing them down. By constantly keeping the ball on the move, unselfishly looking to make the extra pass in order to find an open man, the scoreboard will once again light up and team assist totals will pile up.

Defensively, the Bulls have to improve communicating with one another. They have to pledge to each other to always hustle back on defense and also shut down paths to the basket. Chicago’s team defense also can’t keep losing sight of the ball and/or having issues where it comes to rotating and providing solid help defense. As a team, they need to reestablish their blue-collar identity and not allow any opponent to drive into the paint without paying a heavy toll. Collectively, the Bulls need send a clear and forceful message that the days of reaching the rim without getting hit are finally over. Every pass and shot attempted needs to be strongly contested. Simply put, Chicago has to get back to being the hardnosed, give no quarter team Bulls fans have known, admired and loved for over 50 years.