Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Wizards (12.21.16)

The Chicago Bulls (14-13) and the Washington Wizards (12-15) meet again at the United Center, this the second of a total of four get-togethers on the season. The next two will take place in our Nation’s Capital on January 10th and on March 17th.

In the last powwow back on November 12th, Chicago successfully defended its home court in running away with a 106-95 victory behind Jimmy Butler’s 37 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Both Robin Lopez (10 points / 13 rebounds) and Niko Mirotic (17 points / 11 rebounds) also recorded double-doubles for the Bulls.

As a team, Chicago shot 92.0% from the charity stripe, hitting 23-of-25 attempts. Butler was a perfect 14-of-14 from the line.

To be fair, the Wizards came into the game shorthanded, as both their star guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal, didn’t play. However Markeif Morris and Marcin Gortat did, and each enjoyed a strong game as Morris posted a season-high 24 points, and Gortat added 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Chicago should come into tonight’s contest feeling confident after destroying Detroit, 113-82, Monday evening here at the UC. Seven Bulls scored in double figures, led by Butler’s 19 points. Taj Gibson was a perfect 8-of-8 from the field in adding 16 points and Lopez chipped in another 14 (on 7-of-10 shooting) to go along with six rebounds.

As a team, Chicago knocked in seven of their first eight shot attempts, and for the quarter dished 15 assists, which tied Golden State’s mark for most dimes in a single-quarter this season.

The Bulls also torched the twine to the tune of 81% shooting in the opening quarter in taking a commanding 35-19 lead after 12 minutes. They then stampeded to a 10-0 run to open the second stanza and never looked back the rest of the night.

Chicago dominated in all phases of the game, but especially so in the paint, outscoring the Pistons 56-38 and outrebounding them, 46-32. The Bulls also put on a clinic with regards to the importance of good ball movement and playing an unselfish game. Chicago posted 34 assists on 49 made baskets. Rajon Rondo dished a season-best 14 dimes en route to his fifth double-double (10 points, 14 assists, 8 rebounds). Rondo currently is ninth in the NBA with 7.2 assists per game, and the Bulls are 5-0 whenever he hands out 10 or more dimes.

Washington comes in tonight having won three of their last four games, the last of which ended up being a heartbreaking 107-105 loss in Indiana, Monday night. Gortat (21 points, 13 rebounds) and Wall (19 points, 10 assists) had double-doubles for DC. Bradley Beal led the Wiz attack with 22 points, and almost won the game with a corner 3-attempt with 0.9 left on the clock, but his shot bounced out. The Wizards are now 2-9 away from home.

A major key to this evening’s contest will once again be which team effectively takes command of the paint. The Bulls continue to be the league leaders in rebounding, as they come in 1st with an average of 48 rebounds per game, and 1st in offensive rebounding with a mark of 13.2. That strong glass work has led Chicago to also be the NBA’s top team in second-chance scoring with a mark of 15.9 points a game.

Washington, on the other hand, sits near the bottom at No. 28 in overall rebounding (41.9), but Wiz are a very respectable 12th when it comes to the offensive glass, pulling down 10.7 a night.

The 6’11” Gortat, who is averaging a double-double on the year (11.4 points, 11.8 rebounds), is 5th individually in the league in rebounding. Over Washington’s last four games, the Polish Hammer is averaging 14.5 points, pulling down 11.5 rebounds, and shooting 64.0% from the field. Thus keeping him in check down low tonight will have to be a priority for the Bulls. 

Monday’s blowout victory over Detroit brought back a lot of pleasant memories as to how the Bulls started the season, as the team clearly proved to be at its best when they pushed the ball up the floor and aggressively attacked the rim. Conversely, when the Bulls set a slower pace, the offense tends to gasp for air. When that occurs, the ball no longer is shared freely and instead ends up stuck in someone’s hands for far too long while everyone stands around and watches. The offense morphs into isolation, one-on-one battles, where team assist totals shrink, turnovers skyrocket and team and individual shooting percentages tumble. Thus for the Bulls to stay on track tonight, everyone on the hardwood, as well as those on the bench, must stay focused and engaged, and contribute positively in one way or another.

It is vital that the Bulls consistently crash the boards at both ends of the floor, and in turn, run as often as possible. When Chicago establishes a fast and aggressive mindset, opponents have a very difficult time slowing them down. By keeping the ball on the move, from player-to-player, from side-to-side, constantly looking to make the extra pass in order to find the open man, the scoreboard will light up and team assist totals will pile up. In short — everyone eats!

Defensively, the Bulls must continue working to improve upon communicating with one another. They have to hustle back on defense and forcefully shut down paths to the basket.

Chicago’s team defense can’t afford too many mental breakdowns, losing sight of the ball or forgetting to rotate over to provide sturdy help-defense.

Collectively, the Bulls need to reinforce its blue-collar identity and not allow the Wizards to freely drive into the paint without paying a heavy toll. Every pass and shot attempted needs to be strongly contested, as DC’s thunder and lightning backcourt of Beal and Wall can be a lethal if given enough room to breathe. Beal is capable of knocking down shots from 50 miles away while Wall is one of the quickest end-to-end players in the league. When healthy and right, they are a nightmare. This season the Wiz are 12-11 when both are in the starting lineup, and Washington averages 107.2 points on 47.0% shooting. Beal puts up 23.1 points, 3.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds while Wall nets 23.4 points, 10.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals. Both are expected to be on the floor this evening.

Another impressive Wizard to keep an eye on is fourth-year forward, Otto Porter. The 6’8” former Georgetown Hoya comes in averaging 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds. Against Indiana Monday night, Porter put up 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in 38 minutes.