Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Spurs (10.21.17)

Tonight the Bulls open the home portion of the 2017-18 season against one of the best teams in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio opened the year at home this past Wednesday, defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 107-99. With that victory the Spurs have now won 19 of their last 21 season openers, all under the direction of legendary head coach Gregg Popovich.

The Bulls, on the other hand, return to the United Center after falling to the Toronto Raptors north of the border Thursday night, 117-100. Veteran center Robin Lopez led Chicago with 18 points and 8 rebounds, followed closely by rookie Lauri Markkanen’s 17 points and 8 boards and Justin Holiday’s 15-point effort.

If a team could ever be characterized as textbook, it would definitely be the San Antonio Spurs. Under Popovich’s direction the Spurs have arguably been the most fundamentally sound team in the league for the past 20+ years. They play the right way, in that the ball freely moves from player-to-player and from side-to-side with purpose. Very rarely do you ever see anyone in a San Antonio uniform attempt to go one-on-one against a defender as the team’s mantra has always been to get the ball and go and don’t shy away from making the extra pass if it’ll get us a better shot.

Defensively the Spurs are also at the top of the league. They relentlessly look to pressure the ball and make opponents work hard for every point. Although some of their players are not personally considered shut-down defenders, they generally are quite crafty as team defenders as they often achieve success by cohesively working together.

Clearly the Bulls are in for a tough challenge. Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg has been preaching since Day 1 the importance of pace and space to his young squad. For the Bulls to have a fighting chance this evening they are going to have to match and somewhat exceed San Antonio’s energy and execution.

Offensively the Bulls will need to mirror the Spurs game plan by playing fast and freely sharing the ball with one another. Chicago will need to spread shooters around the arc in order to uncover potential cracks in San Antonio’s defense, and point guards Jerian Grant and Kay Felder will need to fearlessly and persistently attack the paint and either go right to the rim and finish their shot or look to kick the ball out to an open sniper on the wing if the Spurs team defense attempts to slide down low to clog the middle.

The team that wins is often the one that is able to best exploit mismatches and execute tasks consistently. We’re not talking brain surgery – the Bulls are going to need to hit shots and be willing to hustle at both ends of the floor from the opening tip until the final buzzer. Chicago’s roster is packed with youth and athleticism. With a few exceptions, San Antonio’s roster is loaded with savvy and highly experienced veteran executioners who rarely get rattled when the game is on the line.

Only time will tell if youth can be served tonight.