Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Raptors (02.14.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (26-29) come face-to-face once again with the Toronto Raptors (32-23) in the second of three meetings scheduled for this season. In the first get-together played at the United Center on January 7th, All-Star Jimmy Butler exploded for 42 points, 18 of which came from the free throw line, to drive Chicago to a 123-118 overtime victory — the Bulls’ 10th consecutive over the Raptors. Dwyane Wade also enjoyed a terrific night with 20 points and seven assists while Doug McDermott came off the bench on fire, chipping in 17 points and 10 rebounds.

In total, the Bulls captured 60 rebounds (17 offensive) compared to 41 for Toronto (six offensive), and posted 26 second-chance points to seven for the Raptors. Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry notched 36 and 27 points, respectively. Lowry also dished 12 dimes and seized nine rebounds.

Toronto hits the Windy City chafing at the bit after blowing a 16-point, 4th quarter lead at home Sunday, losing 102-101 to Detroit. It was Toronto’s 10th loss in their last 14 games, and although they stand nine games over .500 on the season, they sit 5th in the East.

Last year Toronto made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals only to fall in six games to the eventually NBA Champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers. They came into this season fully-confident that they could beat Cleveland this time, but Toronto’s defense hasn’t been as stout as they had hoped, as they’re 17th in defensive efficiency compared to 11th at this time last year. (Note: The Bulls are currently 14th in defensive efficiency.)

Offensively, the Raptors have also taken a step back, especially of late. Over their last 14 games, Toronto is averaging just 101.9 points on 44.6 percent shooting, compared to 111.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting earlier this season.

Help seems to be on the way, however, as this morning it is being reported Toronto and the Orlando Magic have agreed to a trade with the Raptors acquiring 6’10” power forward Serge Ibaka in exchange for reserve small forward Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick. Ibaka is an outstanding all-around player, averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He not only can hold his own in the paint, he’s also an accomplished threat behind the 3-point arc, knocking down 83-of-214 (38.8%) from distance this season.

Life hasn’t been very pleasant for Chicago of late, as well, as the Bulls return home from a two-week, six-game Western Conference swing riding a three-game losing streak and sporting a season-low won-lost record of three games under .500. Sunday afternoon in Minnesota was a total disaster from the start, as the Bulls were forced to take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota without Butler (injured foot), Wade (injured wrist), Niko Mirotic (back spasms) and Paul Zipser (sprained ankle/flu). Minnesota went on to shoot 54.3 percent from the field, dominating the game from the opening tip. The T-Wolves outrebounded Chicago 46-35, and outscored the Bulls 56-38 in the paint. They even doubled- up Chicago in transition, sprinting by the Bulls 18-9 in fastbreak scoring. The 117-89 loss was Chicago’s third straight blowout of at least 18-or-more points.

If the Bulls are to get back on track tonight, more than a few things will need to go right, with the most important being some semblance of Butler, Wade, Mirotic and possibly Zipser getting back on the floor. However, as of this writing, each is listed as a questionable.    

When things are going well for the Bulls they usually play fast right from the start. Therefore, in order to right the ship, Chicago has to show up to work ready to run and possess a gritty, blue-collar mindset.

A primary factor as to just how competitive Chicago is going to be is how they do on the boards. Currently the Bulls are just a tick below Denver for the league lead in overall rebounding, averaging 46.6 per game (Denver averages 46.7), while Toronto sits near the bottom at No. 23 at 42.7 per game.

As for offensive rebounding, the Bulls are the NBA’s best, sporting a league-high mark of 12.9 per, while the Raptors are 9th, capturing 10.8 per game.

A happy circumstance of being a good offensive rebounding team is that you usually are able to score a number of easy baskets via put-backs. The Bulls have taken full advantage of this aspect of their game as they rank 2nd in the NBA in second-chance scoring (15.6). And since they aren’t a particularly good outside shooting team, being able to cash checks via put-back opportunities has helped them stay competitive and/or win a number of games.

It’s doubtful Ibaka will be able to make it to town in time to play tonight, but one guy in particular Chicago will need to keep an eye on is Toronto starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, a 5th-year, 7-footer out of Lithuania. Valanciunas leads the team with 20 double-doubles, and although he’s averaging just 12.4 points and 9.8 rebounds, over his last five games Valanciunas is putting up 18.8 points while snatching 8.4 boards. Obviously keeping the 24-year old big man in check will need to be a priority.

And speaking of priorities, outside of Golden State’s amazing backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, you would be hard pressed to come up with another guard duo in the league that’s more dynamic than Toronto’s pair of All-Stars, Kyle Lowry (22.8 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 41.9% 3FG) and DeMar DeRozen (27.9 points, 3.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals).

The 6-foot Lowry ranks 4th in the NBA in 3-pointers made (177) and is 9th in 3-point shooting accuracy (41.9%), while DeRozen is no picnic either, as he  currently ranks 5th in scoring (27.9). So far DeRozen has notched 30-or-more points 22 times this season, and 20-or-more points 44.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their finest when they aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago to click, the ball has to skip and not end up glued onto anyone’s hands for long. Everyone has to be active and engaged.

Without a doubt, the Bulls also need to spread out and space the floor while at the same time look to repeatedly attack the rim.

As a team, the Bulls have done an outstanding job of making their way to the free throw line, as they’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 322 points at the charity stripe so far this season.

To break it down further, Chicago has attempted 20-or-more charity tosses in 41 of 55 games played. And although that’s an interesting stat, in order for it to mean anything, it helps a great deal if they’re able to take advantage by consistently converting at the line — and the Bulls have definitely done that — connecting 79.6% of the time, good for 7th in the league.

Chicago’s primary assignment tonight is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls need to play with the proverbial chip on their shoulder, and refuse to back off in any way, shape or form. They must take control of the boards — both offensive and defensive — and in doing so, dominate the paint. It’s also vital they aggressively defend the 3-point arc as Toronto ranks 6th in 3-point shooting (37.1%), averaging 9.2 treys a game.

The Raptors are a very talented and hungry squad. The addition of Ibaka, even if he doesn’t make it to Chicago in time for tip-off, is likely going to give them a major psychological boost. The Bulls, on the other hand, are clearly battered and bruised at the moment — physically and emotionally. However, the best way for Chicago to get healthy is to hit the hardwood unified, with each player fulfilling a pledge to give everything he has to offer.

—    Anthony Hyde