Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Wizards (03.17.17)

The Chicago Bulls (32-36) and the Southeast Division leading Washington Wizards (41-26) meet for the fourth and final time tonight with the Wizards holding a 2-1 edge in the season series. In the last get-together on January 10th in DC, the Bulls narrowly lost, 101-99, despite hitting 10 three-pointers, five of which came from rookie Denzel Valentine who scored a team-high 19 points. All five Washington starters scored in double-figures that night, led by All-Star guard John Wall’s 26 followed by Bradley Beal and Markeif Morris’ 19 points apiece. Wall, who also posted 14 assists, rallied the Wiz down the stretch, hitting the game-winning jumper with just 5.9 seconds left to play. The victory lifted Washington over the .500 mark for first time this season, and since that night the Wizards have gone 22-7.

Washington, who has won five of its last seven, recently returned from a highly successful Western Conference road swing, one in which they began the trip winning four straight in five nights. Although they lost to Minnesota in last game of that lengthy trek, what they have accomplished to this point nothing short of spectacular. Without a doubt, they are a must-watch team and have to be considered a legitimate title contender. Of course getting by Cleveland and Boston in the East won’t be easy, but the Wizards truly are the real deal.

Both the Bulls and Washington last played Wednesday, each coming out on the losing end, as Chicago fell at home to Memphis, 98-91, and the Wizards, also at home, were knocked down by suddenly hot Dallas Mavericks, 112-107.

With only 14 games left in the season, the Bulls are on their heels, as Wednesday’s loss was Chicago’s sixth in its last seven, pushing their record to four games under .500 and into 10th place in the East. Coming into tonight’s contest, Chicago is a game back of both Detroit and Miami for the East’s 8th and final playoff berth. And the news only gets worse, as not only did the Bulls lose a game they badly needed the other night, they also lost Dwyane Wade for the rest of the season, as the future Hall of Famer suffered a season-ending right elbow injury during the game. It was announced Thursday that Wade not only sprained some ligaments in his elbow, but he suffered a small bone fracture as well.

Washington also endured a scare Wednesday, as Wall looked to have badly injured his left foot after landing awkwardly on a drive to the basket just before halftime. Wall eventually limped to the locker room under his own power, but came back looking healthy by the start of the third quarter, and went on to post his 44th double-double of the season (26 points, 11 assists), but his heroics couldn’t stop a furious comeback by Dallas. As of this writing, Washington is saying Wall’s availability tonight will be a game-time decision, as he sat out yesterday’s practice. However, early indications Friday morning seem to point to him playing.

Offensively speaking, the Bulls have proven to be at their best when they consistently push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. In order for any team to succeed, the ball has to be shared. And with regards to Chicago, the evidence is pretty clear as the team’s won-loss mark is 17-6 whenever they record more assists than the opposition.

With this in mind, especially with Wade out of action for the rest of the season, Chicago is going to need strong and consistent contributions from a number of guys who have been moved in-and-out of the rotation. One such player is veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, who has responded really well to the challenge. Since being slotted back into the starting lineup at the beginning of the week, Rondo has averaged a little over 35 minutes a game, shot 15-of-31 (48.4%) from the field, 6-of-10 (60.0%) from the arc, grabbed 6.5 rebounds, dished 7.0 assists while turning the ball over just 1.5 times while chipping in 18.5 points. In Wednesday’s loss to Memphis, the savvy playmaker led the Bulls with 17 points and 8 assists with 0 turnovers. This season Chicago has gone 9-9 when Rondo dishes 8+ assists and 7-2 when he hands out 10+.

Another key player who is being counted on to step up is Nikola Mirotic, who like Rondo, was asked to take on a bigger role at the start of this week and has responded positively. Over Chicago’s last two games, Mirotic has come off the bench to play a little over 28 minutes, shot 8-of-20 (40.0%) from beyond the arc, snagged 8.0 rebounds and put up 19 points a night.

Rookie swingman Denzel Valentine is also on a nice roll, as he’s scored double-digits in three straight games, averaging 11.6 points in 26 minutes of action off the bench. The Michigan State grad has helped force opponents to extend their defense away from the paint and rim, opening up the court for the Bulls’ guards to move more freely and attack the iron. Over Chicago’s last three games Valentine has shot 9-of-21 (42.9%) from distance.

As a team, over the last 5 games, the Bulls, who have averaged the least amount of makes and takes from the arc this season, have begun to fire away. Against Memphis Wednesday, Chicago shot a very respectable 11-of-28 (39.3%) from the arc, and over its last 5 contests are connecting on an average of 10.6 long balls a night. Compare this sample size to the current team leaders in the category, the Bulls would now rank 8th in the NBA in made 3s per game.

For the most part Chicago has done a tremendous job of attacking the basket and finding their way to the free throw line, while also keeping the opposition off the charity stripe. As a team, they have attempted a total of 1,585 free throws while opponents have taken just 1,270 — that’s a whopping +315 extra free throw attempts in Chicago’s favor. As for cashing in on those extras, Chicago has connected on 1,265 of those 1,585 attempts (79.8%) while opponents have knocked down just 982-of-1,270 attempts (77.3%) — giving the Bulls a +283 extra points from the free throw line.

On the whole, the Bulls are averaging a pretty healthy 18.6 made free throws, but 31 times they’ve been able to hit 20+ charity tosses, and in those contests their record stands at 20-11. Thus it wouldn’t be a bad idea this evening to speed up the pace by relentlessly attacking the rim, forcing DC to foul.

In that vein, defensively, Chicago’s going to need to do a good job of keeping the lines of communication open. Every Bull on the court needs to be aware of where the ball is and where their assigned man wants to go. Poor communication often leads to fastbreaks, easy scores and game-changing momentum swings, and Washington’s roster is loaded with high-octane athletes who can change momentum on a dime. The aforementioned John Wall is a perfect example. There may not be another in the NBA today who is half as fast as Wall going coast-to-coast. His aggressiveness is his biggest strength and he has learned to exploit that explosiveness to the nth degree.

Wall’s backcourt sidekick, Bradley Beal, can be just as lethal. The 23-year old, 6’5” sharpshooting guard out of Florida has led the Wiz in scoring 25 times this season, has scored 20+ points 44 times, 30+ points 13 times, and 40+ points 4 times. For the season, Beal averages 23.2 points while shooting 48.1% from the field, and 40.3% from distance.

Fourth-year forward Otto Porter Jr. is another DC lethal weapon. The 6’8” sniper out of Georgetown leads the NBA in 3-point shooting (45.4%). The Wizards are 17-3 whenever Porter hits three or more 3s in a game, and on the year he’s averaging career-highs in points (14.1), minutes (33.9) and is shooting 52.5% from the field overall.

Another key Wizard worth keeping a close eye on is recent trade deadline pick-up, Bojan Bogdanovic. The 27-year old forward from Bosnia & Herzegovina, via the Brooklyn Nets, is 29-of-61 (47.5%) from deep and averaging 15.9 points off the bench since landing in Washington.      

The Bulls are going to need to come out fast and strong from the opening tip. In fact, they have play with an edge every time the hit the hardwood from here on out. They have to wrestle control of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and they need to look to run at every opportunity. The ball has to freely move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Everyone has to be on the same page.

Defensively, Chicago has to be willing to hustle back and look to jump the passing lanes whenever opportunity knocks. They simply have to get after it and stay after it all night long.

If the Bulls hope to make a return trip to the playoffs, every pass, every shot, every possession, every rebound and every defensive play matters.

—   Anthony Hyde