Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Sixers (05.03.21)

The Bulls are back home tonight to complete the season series against the No. 1 team in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, who come to town to play the second half of a back-to-back after beating the Spurs, 113-111, yesterday in San Antonio.

Tonight's tip-off from the United Center is set for 8:00 p.m. CT and will be televised over NBC Sports Chicago as well as broadcast on radio on WBBM AM 780, and in Spanish on TUDN, Univision 1200AM.

Chicago enters tonight having lost three straight, and four of its last five. The team's playoff hopes are literally hanging by an unraveling string. Over the last 10 games, the Bulls have gone 4-6, averaging 103.6 points, 44 rebounds, 28.6 assists, 6.2 steals and 3.2 blocks per game while shooting 47.4% from the field. Opponents, however, have put up 106.7 points on 46.8% shooting.

In their last outing on Saturday, the Bulls ended up being swept by the Atlanta Hawks, falling for the third time to them this season, 108-97 in Atlanta.

Despite not having All-Stars Zach LaVine (he's missed the last 10 games due to league health and safety protocols) and Nikola Vučević (a game time scratch with a right adductor strain), Chicago was able to run out to a double-digit lead after Thaddeus Young tipped in a missed shot in the first minute of the third quarter. But Atlanta, who began the night as the fifth seed in the East, then went on a 13-0 run, and at the 9:15 mark of the third, forward John Collins' 3 from the right wing put them up 67-65, and the home team never trailed again.

The victory secured at least an invite to the NBA's play-in tournament for Atlanta, which hasn't been to the playoffs since 2017. As for the Bulls, they currently sit three games behind the present-day occupant of the East's 10th spot, the Washington Wizards, with only eight games left on the schedule.

As mentioned earlier, the Sixers visit tonight after escaping San Antonio with a two-point overtime win yesterday. Joel Embiid led the way with 34 points and 12 rebounds, but the win came on a Ben Simmons tip of a miss from Embiid as time expired. Embiid had four points in overtime, all on free throws.

Seth Curry scored 22 points and Dwight Howard added 14 as Philadelphia won its fourth straight to remain atop the East. Simmons finished with five points, six rebounds and five assists in 35 minutes.

Defensively, Chicago will once again be tested, especially if Vučević has to miss a second straight game. Although he's not considered a top shelf defender, Vučević adds plenty of bulk down low and is a major force on the boards, as he's gathered the third highest number of rebounds in the league and is one of only three this year averaging at least 23 points and 10 rebounds while shooting better than 40% from the 3-point arc and 80% from the free throw line. Vučević is clearly someone teams have to worry about on a nightly basis. But if he can't go, it's likely going to be a very steep, uphill battle for the Bulls.

Philly's one of the NBA's top rebounding teams, and a majority of their offense comes from put-backs, mid-range shots and transition points. They get after it on the glass and always look to take off for quick-strike scores at the other end of the floor. So, it's imperative the Bulls do a great job of talking and helping each other out by decisively rotating when needed and executing the fundamentals of the game such as boxing out and sticking close and staying in front of their assigned man. This also goes hand-in-hand in working hard to clamp down in the paint and not allow the Sixers to gain passage to the rim. As a collective unit, Chicago must take command of the paint from the opening tip and force the Sixers to operate out of their comfort zone, far from the hoop.

As for offense, for the Bulls to be effective the ball has to skip from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Quick, relentless passing, coupled with persistent player movement, places pressure on defenses to respond, and if the pressure persists and builds throughout the night, defenses tend to scramble, fall apart and needlessly foul. Free-flowing passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim and allows for high percentage shots at the rim.

Frankly, for the Bulls to give themselves a shot of coming out on top, they need to sport an aggressive attitude and play with an edge. As a team, they must be willing to lay it all out on the line by battling at both ends of the floor. They have to stay focused, poised and dogged all night long. They need to get physical, fighting through screens (not going under), and make sure everyone wearing a Sixers uniform feels somewhat bruised and battered by the end of the night. In short, in order to succeed, the Bulls have to carry that mindset throughout tonight's contest, and every single one from here on out. They have to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way.

If they execute this approach tonight, they'll give themselves a shot of knocking off a legitimate title contender while at the same time keep their own playoff hopes and aspirations alive for at least another day.