Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Raptors (02.14.18)

Tonight the Bulls and the Toronto Raptors close out the season series between the two teams, with the Raptors looking for a clean 4-0 sweep. Toronto won the first two up North, 117-100 and 119-114, respectively, and then bagged the third game of the series in an old-fashioned shootout at the United Center, 124-115, last month. Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan notched a game-high 35 points, while Delon Wright stormed off the Dino's bench and established career-highs of 25 points and 13 rebounds. Justin Holiday led the Bulls' attack with 26 points, while rookie Lauri Markkanen chipped in 22 and 12 rebounds. Both the Bulls and Raptors shot well from distance, with Toronto connecting for 15 3s, while the Bulls shot 13-for-33 (39.4%) from the arc. Nonetheless Toronto went on a 16-2 run late to break open a tight game to seal the Bulls' fate.

Tonight marks the second half of a back-to-back for Toronto as they knocked-off the Miami Heat 115-112 last night at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors are now riding a six-game winning streak and currently sport the East's best record at 40-16 (.714). They're also one of the finest offensive teams in the league, ranking 3rd in scoring (111.7), 4th in shot attempts (87.7), 7th in shooting (46.9), 7th in made 3s (11.5), 5th in attempted 3s (32.2), 8th in made free throws (17.8), 13th in attempted free throws (22.3), 3rd in free throw shooting (80.0%).

As for the Bulls, they're coming off Monday's exciting 105-101 victory over the Orlando Magic. Chicago recorded 25 assists and only turned the ball over 11 times. Currently they rank 7th in the league in assists (23.7), and 9th in least amount of turnovers (13.8) committed. Chicago's bench has also been dependable this year. On Monday they outscored Orlando's reserves 38-26, marking the 30th time (in 56 games) they have out produced their counterparts. In fact Chicago ranks 9th in bench scoring with an average of 39.3 points off the pine.

Speaking of offense, although the Bulls' won-loss record sits at 20-36, the team continues to steadily improve as time marches on. Since opening the year 3-20, they have gone 17-16. In those first 23 contests, they reached the century mark in scoring only eight times, yet over the following 33 contests, they have hit or surpassed 100 points on 26 occasions.

In order to deny Toronto a clean sweep of the season series this evening the Bulls are going to have to aggressively charge out of the gates and stay focused throughout the contest. It's going to take a concerted effort from everyone, as collectively, Chicago needs to hit the hardwood with a hard-nosed attitude, and commit to outhustling and out-executing Toronto in every possible way.

Chicago is at its best when they immediately establish a fast pace by consistently pushing the ball up the floor and attack the rim early before the defense has time to set-up. To truly be effective they also need to spread out, placing shooters all along the 3-point arc so that the defense is forced to come out from under the basket. The ball has to generously be shared, keeping everyone involved on every possession — it must jump from player-to-player, skipping from one side of the court to the other — which in turn puts pressure on the defense, forcing them to expend extra energy.
Another important factor for the Bulls is to consistently drive the ball deep into the paint and find a way to get to the free throw line. Every Chicagoan should continuously be on the move, darting in-and-out of the paint and all around the arc to help open lanes to the hoop. There's a possibility point guard Kris Dunn could return to active duty tonight after having missed 11 straight games due to a concussion. With Dunn on the sidelines Chicago's overall game has suffered, as the team has gone 3-8 in his absence. The 6'4” second-year floor general has become a key player in that his grit and fiery competitive personality at both ends of the floor has frequently sparked the Bulls to great heights.

Obviously another key player is fourth-year guard Zach LaVine, who looks to be finding his groove after being forced to miss the first 43 games of the season while rehabbing from a torn left ACL suffered last year while with Minnesota. The 22-year old guard has clearly hit his stride, averaging 24.8 points, 4.8 boards, 2.8 assists, 2.6 made 3s and 1.4 steals in 30 minutes of action over his last five starts.

If Dunn is able to return the floor to team with LaVine, Chicago's starting backcourt is very capable of holding their own against Toronto's dynamic duo of All-Stars, DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Overall, if the Bulls can ignite their attack early and stay aggressive throughout, keeping everyone involved while playing free and loose, they'll give themselves a good shot of pulling off an upset.

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