Keys to the Game: Bulls at Warriors (02.08.17)

Coming off an exciting 112-107 victory in Sacramento Monday, the Chicago Bulls (26-26), winners of three of their last four, take on the Golden State Warriors (43-8) at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Tonight’s contest is the first of two scheduled between the Bulls and the Warriors. Golden State’s only visit to the United Center will take place next month, on Thursday, March 2nd.

In Monday’s contest against the Kings, Chicago’s Dwyane Wade saved the day with Superman-esq heroics, scoring 31 points, including the Bulls’ last seven points down the stretch to seal the victory. Wade, who notched 11 points in the fourth quarter alone, hit the biggest shot of the game, a tie-breaking 20-footer to put Chicago ahead for good at 109-107 with 13 seconds left to play. Then, following a Sacramento timeout, Wade stole the Kings’ inbound pass and raced the length of the court for a dunk to push the edge to four points. After Sacramento failed to score on the ensuing trip down the court, the Kings All-Star center, DeMarcus Cousins, was called for a technical foul with one second left on the clock, and who else but Wade, calmly walked down to the other end of the floor and sank the final free throw, putting the game in the books for Chicago.

The Bulls also played without All-Star Jimmy Butler for the second consecutive game due to a heel injury, so Michael Carter-Williams (21 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals) took his spot in the starting lineup and ignited Chicago’s attack right from the start, as the Bulls stampeded to a 27-11 lead after one.

It was a total team effort throughout most of the evening, as the Bulls did a terrific job of running the floor, dominating the paint and sharing the ball with one another while at the same time frustrating Sacramento’s offense inside and out. By late in the third quarter Chicago had built what looked to be an insurmountable 27-point lead, however, thanks to subs Ty Lawson (10 points in the 4th) and Matt Barnes (9 points in the 4th), along with Cousins (7 points in the 4th), Sacramento refused to quit and battled back. With 30.8 seconds left to play in the game, Cousins was fouled by Bulls forward Taj Gibson as he drove hard to the rim and converted a layup to knot the score at 107. That was Gibson’s sixth foul sending him to the bench for the rest of the night. Cousins then missed a free throw that would have given the Kings the lead, and at that point, Wade unfurled his Superman cape, grabbing the missed charity toss and ultimately taking control of the game.

The Warriors enter tonight smarting just a little bit after suffering a 109-106 overtime road loss to Sacramento last Saturday. Still, the ‘Dubs sport the league’s best record (43-8), as well as the best home (22-3) and road marks (21-5).

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have ruled their home hardwood with an iron fist, compiling an incredible 100-7 (.935) regular season record at Oracle Arena.

But, as the old saying goes, “Records are made to be broken,” so maybe tonight something special might happen. However, clearly the Bulls are facing a very tough challenge, especially if Butler is still unable to play this evening.

Led by All-Stars Kevin Durant (25.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists), Steph Curry (25.6 points, 6.4 assists, 1.74 steals and 42.3% 3FGM), Klay Thompson (21.4 points and 40.3% 3FGM) and Draymond Green (10.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.94 steals), the Warriors are like no other team in the NBA. They play fast, they play aggressive and they play for keeps.

Golden State comes in first in the league in offense (113.8) and second in defensive (101.4) ratings, whereas the Bulls are 17th in offense (104.8) and ninth in defense (104.6). The Warriors also average 23.0 fastbreak points a game, the best in the league, while Chicago is 10th at 13.8. And the Warriors are also the league’s best shooting team, hitting 49.9% of their shots, while the Bulls are 24th at 44.1%.

Yet, even with so many stats heavily leaning in favor of Golden State, on any given night, it’s what happens on the court that matters most. So for the Bulls to have a chance of coming out on top, they will have to outwork, outhustle and outmaneuver the ‘Dubs.

A key hint as to how good a night the Bulls are going to have is how they do on the boards. Currently they lead the league in overall rebounding, averaging 47.0 per game. However, the Warriors are not far behind, ranking 5th at 45.1. Where the Bulls should have an edge is on the offensive glass, as they are also the league’s best offensive rebounding team, collecting 12.9 per game, while the Warriors are 24th at 9.1 per game.

An important aspect that goes hand-in-hand with offensive rebounding is second-chance scoring, and the Bulls are currently the NBA’s No. 2 team in this category, posting a very healthy 15.5 second-chance points per game, while the Warriors are in the middle of the pack at No. 14, posting 12.6.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they take command the glass, and in turn push the pace, running the ball up the court while holding turnovers in check. For Chicago to be any kind of offensive threat, the ball has to be freely shared — it has to jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side.

For instance, over Chicago’s last four games, three of which were victories with the one loss in overtime, they scored 121, 128, 117 points and 112 points. In those games, the Bulls handed out 29, 25, 30 and 21 assists while committing only 10, 9, 14 and 8 turnovers, respectively.

Much like the Warriors, the Bulls also need to space the floor if they are going to have a chance to win. It’s vital they place shooters evenly apart, all around the three-point arc. Doing so on a consistent basis forces the defense to stray and abandon the paint. In turn, that offers openings for Chicago to aggressively drive the ball to the rim, compelling the defense to then scramble, and oftentimes foul.

As a team, the Bulls have done a fantastic job of making their way to free throw line. Chicago ranks in the top 10 in attempted free throw per game (24.7) and made free throws (19.7). Overall, they are shooting an impressive 80% from the charity stripe.

In breaking down the numbers, you will see that Chicago has attempted 1,286 free throws and converted 1,026 of those shots. Opponents, on the other hand, have attempted only 966 free throws (320 less than the Bulls) and converted just 735 (scoring 291 less points than the Bulls at the stripe). Over the Bulls’ last six games, they have outscored the opposition 171-111 at the free throw line, a +60 in their favor.

The Bulls chief task tonight is to come out fast and aggressive. They need to take command of the boards, and at no time can they back off or relax. The Warriors like to run. They will look to turn tonight’s game into a track meet, and if they succeed, they can very easily turn the contest into a rout. So it is vital the Bulls consistently hustle back defensively in order to limit Golden State’s the opportunity to get out in transition.

The Bulls will also have to physically look to run Golden State’s shooters off the three-point arc at every turn. That is a full-time job in and of itself, but no team can afford to give the Warriors’ dead-eye snipers open looks at the basket. In 16 of their last 19 games, the Warriors have made at least 10 3-pointers. Curry, Thompson and Durant are three of the quickest shooters the game has ever seen, thus Chicago’s defense has to keep a close eye on each of and contest every shot they attempt.

—    Anthony Hyde