Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Spurs (12.8.16)

Tonight the Bulls return home to the United Center to tangle with one of the NBA’s best, the San Antonio Spurs.

Both Chicago and San Antonio last played Tuesday, with the Bulls falling in Detroit, 102-91, whereas the Spurs captured its 13th straight road win, 105-91, in Minnesota. Chicago’s loss was the team’s third straight and sixth over its last nine games, while San Antonio’s victory was its fourth in its last five, and 13th over its last 14 games. Jimmy Butler notched a game-high 32 points and Dwyane Wade added 19 and seven assists for Chicago Tuesday night, but Detroit thoroughly dominated the fourth quarter, outpacing the Bulls 31-19 in the final stanza to run away with the game.

San Antonio, on the other hand, broke open a tight contest halfway through the third quarter, and went on to outscore the T-Wolves 62-45 in the second half to take care of business. All-Star Kawhi Leonard hit 11-of-15 shots, including two-of-three from distance and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe to lead all scorers with 31 points. As a team, San Antonio shot a blistering 52.7% from the field as five Spurs posted double-figures in scoring. The Silver and Black bench also outscored their Minnesota counterparts, 42-24, to help lead the way.

The Spurs come into tonight sporting the league’s second-best record at 18-4, which also ties the franchise’s second-best start in its history. What’s most impressive is that their projected starting lineup of Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker so far has only been able to take the court together nine times (with the Spurs going 8-1). Per usual though, San Antonio’s deep and talented roster is what separates them from most of the pack, as the Spurs’ bench has outscored the opposition 14 times so far this season.

Tonight’s game will be a homecoming of sorts for Spurs center Pau Gasol, who left Chicago over the summer as a free agent after playing two seasons with the Bulls. The 7’0” Spaniard was a two-time All-Star averaging 17.6 points and 11.4 rebounds in 33 minutes while in Chicago. This year however, Gasol’s numbers are down all across the board (11.4 points, 7.4 rebounds in 26 minutes), yet he’s very much enjoying the experience of being a key component of an elite team.    

A primary key for the Bulls this evening will be their ability to play a physical game down low and wrestle control the boards. Chicago currently ranks 2nd rebounding (48.5), whereas the Spurs are near the bottom of the pile at No. 29 with a mark of 41.6 rebounds overall.

The Bulls can really make an impact on the offensive glass, as they continue to be the NBA leaders by snaring 13.7 offensive caroms a night. Overall, they hold a commanding +5.4 edge in rebounds, and have outscored opponents in second-chance points, 333-261.

Offensively, Chicago has to get back to tirelessly pushing the ball up the floor and staying on the attack. The Bulls’ offense begins to sputter whenever the ball gets stuck in anyone’s hands for too long.

Chicago started the season in breakneck fashion by regularly crashing the glass hard and immediately driving the ball up the court and keeping on the move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. By aggressively pushing the ball and making quick decisions on the fly, opponents had trouble setting up on defense and thus the Bulls were able to score a number of uncontested buckets. Lately though, Chicago has started to fall into the trap of slowing down and playing more of an isolation game, where players attempt to beat a defender one-on-one instead of keeping everyone continually on the move.

The Bulls clearly have been the most effective this season when they look to attack the rim, forcing the defense onto its heels and fouling. As a team, Chicago has done an excellent job of taking command of the paint and getting to the line and making opponents pay a heavy price, outscoring foes to the tune of 424-289 at the charity stripe. In fact, the Bulls have hit 20 or more free throws in 12 of their first 21 games. In particular, Jimmy Butler has been outstanding in this regard, as he comes into tonight second in the league in free throws made per game (8.8) and fifth in free throws attempted (9.9). Overall, the two-time Bulls All-Star is averaging a team-leading and career-high 26 points per game and hitting .889% from the line.

A key aspect for the Bulls this evening will be their ability to command the paint and dominate play on the block. Chicago was able to defeat Cleveland last week by attacking the paint and converting. The Bulls scored a ridiculous 78 of the team’s 111 points that night down low. Chicago probably won’t need to match the 78 point mark this evening to win the game, however putting 50 or more up on the board from close range would likely go a long way to achieving success.

In short, the Bulls are going to have to hit the hardwood fast and strong at both ends and never slowdown in order to knock-off one of the finest teams in the NBA. Defensively, Chicago is going to have to stay focused and tied together in closing paths to the basket. The Spurs are an incredibly unselfish team. They like to play fast and loose and they are constantly making the extra pass to find the open man. The Bulls are going to have to do a great job of communicating with each other and never lose sight of their man. San Antonio often stations shooters all along the three-point arc while the point guard drives the ball hard to the rim. If the defense sags and attempts to double-team the ballhandler, he immediate looks to find an open sniper at the arc for a long ball. The Bulls are going to need to “stay home” on those shooters, keeping a hand up and in their faces in order to contest every shot the Spurs launch.

From the opening tip to the final horn, the Bulls are going to have be tenacious in every way, yet also stay in control of their emotions in order to come out on top.