Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Warriors (03.02.17)

Facing the league’s top-ranked offensive team under normal circumstances is tough enough, but taking them on two days after surrendering 125 points to a sub-.500 crew? And oh, that top-ranked squad you’re going up against also happens to sport the league’s best record (50-10) and hits town ticked-off after suffering a rare loss in which they also witnessed one of their elite players go down to injury as a result of an unsportsmanlike play? Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. In fact, it could easily spell “Trouble” with a capital “T” for a team like the Chicago Bulls (30-30).

Tuesday night the Bulls allowed the most points they have given up all season to the 28-win Denver Nuggets — the 8th seeded team in the West. Tonight they get to face the No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors who simply “average” 118.1 points every time they show up to work. Yes, I said average, as in typical, nothing all that special or extraordinary.

On paper, it clearly looks to be a long night for Chicago, but thankfully the NBA doesn’t play any of its games on paper. In fact, they actually play all their games inside very large arenas in front of thousands of raucous fans — and on a night like tonight — this one will also be played on national TV in front of an audience of millions. And if you’re a die-hard Bulls fan who also happens to be a little superstitious, well, you’re probably comforted — at least a little bit — that Chicago has won its last 16 Thursday night, nationally televised home games on TNT — oh, and Marv Albert is also handling TNT’s play-by-play duties, too — YYYEEESSSSS!

As mentioned earlier, Golden State comes to town on the heels of a 112-108 loss in Washington the other evening. With just 22 games remaining before the start of the playoffs, that setback coupled with the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant (25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks), who is expected to miss the next four to six weeks with a sprained left MCL, is essentially being written off as a bump in the road for a team that every basketball pundit believes will end up making its third straight NBA Finals appearance by the time June rolls around. Even without Durant, the Warriors are still very much a powerhouse as they have three other gold medal winning US Olympians on the roster in the likes of Steph Curry (24.8 points, 6.3 assists and 40.4% 3FG%), Klay Thompson (21.9 points, 2.1 assists and 41.5% 3FG%) and Draymond Green, who leads Golden State in assists (7.3), steals (2.1), and is second in rebounding (8.1) and blocks (1.4). In fact, Green’s game is so unique, earlier this season he became the first player in league history to post a triple-double while scoring less than 10 points. That night the former Michigan State All-American grabbed 11 rebounds, handed out 10 assists and established a franchise record of 10 steals.

A little over three weeks ago the Bulls met the Warriors in Oakland, California, where the ‘Dubs put on a virtual clinic on the virtues of sharing the ball and knocking down open shots, defeating Chicago 123-92. Golden State handed out 37 assists on 48 made field goals, and hit 15 of 28 3-pointers, shooting 56.5% overall. Durant posted 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals, while Thompson scored 28 points, hitting six shots from distance. Green also chipped in 19 points and knocked down 5 long balls. However, to be fair, the Bulls were shorthanded as Chicago’s top two players, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, missed the game due to injury. Barring something unforeseen, both Butler and Wade will be in the Bulls’ lineup tonight.

Besides obviously upping their defensive intensity, key factors for Chicago tonight will be how well the team rebounds and whether or not they can wrestle control of the paint or at worst, hold their own down low. The Bulls enter as the NBA’s No. 3 rebounding team (46.3), but just as importantly, they are league’s best offensive window cleaners, snaring 12.7 miscues a night. A vital aspect that goes hand-in-hand with offensive rebounding is second-chance scoring, and just as strong as they are on the offensive glass, the Bulls are also the league leaders in this category, posting an impressive mark of 15.6 second-helpers a game. Thus if they’re going to pull off an upset this evening, Chicago will definitely need to dominate the offensive boards and post plenty of easy put-back points up on the board.  

Offensively, keeping turnovers in check while also doing a good job of sharing the ball, passing it from player-to-player and from side-to-side in constant search for an open shot or path the hoop, is also vital for the Bulls tonight. Over their last five games, four of which were victories, Chicago has averaged 112.2 points on 27.2 assists and while turning the ball over just 11 times.

Another important key will be what kind of contribution the Bulls get from its bench. Chicago’s reserves have played a major role in the team’s recent stretch of success, chipping in 49.6 points over its last five contests, including 51 points the other night in the loss to Denver. In particular, Nikola Mirotic (13.3 points, 55.0 FG %, 46.7 3FG % and 6.3 rebounds) and rookie Denzel Valentine (11 points, 55.0 FG %, 50.0 3FG %) have provided the biggest sparks off the pine over the last three games.

Much like the Warriors, the Bulls will need to space the floor if they are going to have a chance to win. It’s vital Chicago unswervingly place shooters all around the floor and avoid clogging paths to the basket. Doing so forces the defense to stray from the paint and offers opportunities to aggressively drive the ball to the rim.

As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of making their way to free throw line. They come into tonight’s game ranking in the top 10 in attempted free throws per game (24.2) and made free throws (19.3). Overall, they are shooting an impressive 80% from the charity stripe.

Chicago’s primary task tonight is to come out fast and aggressive from the opening tip. They need to take command of the boards, and at no time can they afford to relax. The Warriors like to run and shoot 3s. Golden State leads the league in fast-break scoring (23.2) and has gone 23-2 whenever they post 25 or more fast-break points. Thus they will look to turn tonight’s contest into a track meet, and if they succeed, it can easily turn into a rout. Consequently, it’s vital the Bulls always hustle back defensively in order to limit Golden State’s opportunities to get into transition.

Chicago will also have to physically run Golden State off the 3-point arc at every turn. That is a full-time job in and of itself, but no team can ever afford to give the Warriors’ dead-eye snipers open looks at the iron. The ‘Dubs average a whopping 31.4 three-point attempts a game and are the NBA’s No. 3 long distance shooters (38.5%) overall. They have hit at least 10 long balls 44 times this season, hence Chicago’s defense has to keep a close eye on the arc and forcefully contest every shot attempted in order to have a puncher’s chance of coming out on top.

—  Anthony Hyde