Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Raptors (03.14.21)

The Bulls and the Toronto Raptors finally get together today after the first time they were to meet was postponed late last month when the NBA determined Toronto didn't have enough people available due to the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Head Coach Nick Nurse, along with five of his assistants, as well as star forward Pascal Siakam, had to quarantine after someone was exposed to the virus. Then, within a couple of days key players Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn, and Patrick McCaw were out too.

Seventeen days later, only Head Coach Nick Nurse is back at work!

While the All-Star break provided almost a week hiatus, Toronto's roster still remains decimated. They come to town having lost four in a row including one to Atlanta and last night at Charlotte.

The Hornets quickly jumped to a 25-4 lead, setting a franchise record with 11 3-pointers in the first quarter to build a 44-24 edge after 12 minutes. Then, despite Toronto rallying in the final period, outscoring Charlotte 31-16, they still lost by 10, 114-104.

Since tonight against the Bulls is a back-to-back, Nurse opted not to play his two best remaining players, Kyle Lowry, and Norman Powell, in the fourth quarter against the Hornets in the hope of keeping them fresh for tonight. Then during his postgame media session, Nurse announced Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, Flynn and McCaw will also miss tonight's game.

As for Chicago, the Bulls come in looking to right the ship after dropping four of their last five games. On Friday at the United Center, the Miami Heat bullied their way to a 101-90 victory, holding Chicago to 37.4% shooting from the floor (34-of-91), and only seven trips to the free throw line.

Once again Zach LaVine led the way for the Bulls with a game-high 30 points, along with recording six rebounds and six assists. However, Lauri Markkanen (20), and Thaddeus Young (13) were the only other Bulls to score in double figures.

Much like the movie Groundhogs Day, the Bulls got off to another nightmarish start against the Heat, turning the ball over six times in the first quarter after mishandling it seven times against Philadelphia the night before. They also failed to control the paint, as the Heat doubled Chicago's output near the hoop, 12-6 at the start of the game. The result of such careless and sloppy play saw Miami run out to a 29-21 lead after 12 minutes. And although the Bulls tightened up their defense in the second quarter to knot the score at 42 by halftime, Miami relentlessly attacked the paint in the third, dominating that area again, outpointing the Bulls 20-8 to reclaim the lead, 70-68, heading into the final quarter. Chicago also turned the ball over five more times (for a total of 14 through three quarters) which led to eight easy points for Miami.

In order for the Bulls to win games, they have to turn the tables on both of those fronts. Defensively, they have done a solid job of running shooters off the 3-point line. Chicago ranks fifth in the league in holding opponents to a below-average 35.0% shooting from deep, and a third-best 11.5 made treys a game. However, they're the 28th ranked team defending the paint, allowing 50.7 points, and the NBA's worst in allowing 19.7 points off turnovers. Chicago must come together as a collective unit and refuse to grant so many free passages to the hoop and excessive opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

A central goal every game is to be aggressive and get off to fast starts, and then maintain that speedy pace all through the night.

A major advantage the Bulls have is an abundance of youth and athleticism. When they decide to get physical, and they consistently attack the rim as well as rebound at both ends of the floor, good things usually happen.

For Chicago's offense to click, the ball must freely hop from player-to-player. Quick, purposeful passing forces defenses to scramble, overreact, breakdown and commit silly fouls. Smart, speedy passes also help free up driving lanes to the rim for easy buckets, and extra trips to the charity stripe, as well as free looks for shooters stationed around the 3-point arc.

The Bulls cannot allow their offense to slow down or permit one player to take on the defense by himself. Continuous movement, in and out of the paint and all around the arc, is crucial to establishing an efficient and effective offensive rhythm.

To come out on top tonight, Chicago has to do a far better job of taking care of the ball and defending the paint. They cannot allow Toronto the freedom to run about. Collectively, the Bulls need to hit the boards hard at both ends of the floor and limit Toronto's second-chance scoring opportunities.

If the Bulls show up sporting a scrappy attitude and look to stampede out of the gate from the start, they'll have an opportunity to get back on track and regain some much-needed confidence.

The Raptors are in a tough spot with a number of key players out of the lineup. That doesn't mean Chicago can afford to take anything for granted. Instead, the Bulls can take a step forward by exploiting Toronto's situation if they execute offensively and toughen up on defense. If they accomplish those goals, the end result should produce a victory over one of the Eastern Conference's better squads, who, by the way have won 12 straight over Chicago heading into tonight.