Tonight the Chicago Bulls tip-off against their longtime Central Division rivals, the Indiana Pacers, in the first of four meetings this season.
Indiana hits the United Center looking to bounce back after falling to the Brooklyn Nets, 103-94, last night in Gotham City. As usual, Pacers superstar Paul George produced a strong game with 22 points and nine rebounds, but on the whole, Indiana faded down the stretch, misfiring to the tune of 6-of-21 from the field, and was outscored 31-15 over the final 12 minutes of the game to lose by nine.
The 2016-17 Pacers have a decidedly different look from the past. Indiana team president Larry Bird revamped the roster over the summer, bringing in talented veterans Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson and tabbed experienced sideline mastermind, Nate McMillan, to take over the coaching reins. The goal behind Bird’s moves was to give Indy more options to score and push the offensive pace of the game.
Like Indiana, the Bulls also sport a retooled squad, featuring nine players who weren’t in town a year ago. Headlining Chicago’s roster flip are 12-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer, Dwyane Wade, and four-time All-Star, Rajon Rondo. Also new to the Windy City is starting center Robin Lopez and backups Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan, R.J. Hunter and rookies Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser.
Chicago opened the season in grand style, defeating a highly regarded Boston Celtics crew, 105-99, Thursday evening at the UC. Wade knocked home 22 points, dished five dimes and snared six boards in a triumphant homecoming debut, while returning two-time All-Star and recent gold medal winning Olympian, Jimmy Butler, led the way with 24 points, seven boards and two steals. Veteran Bulls strongman Taj Gibson also came up big with 18 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes of action.
Chicago’s formula for success has always consisted of imposing its collective will, out-hustling opponents in every conceivable way. The Bulls pounded the boards Thursday, outrebounding Boston 55-36. If they are to come out on top again tonight, they will need to post another strong effort on the glass. Indiana wants to run and turn every game into a track meet. However, if the Bulls can take control the boards, and do so convincingly, the Pacers running game should essentially have very little gas.
Defensively, Chicago will need to be aggressive while also keeping the lines of communication open in order to stay tied together. The Bulls simply cannot allow the Pacers easy scoring opportunities. Every shot and pass Indy attempts must be challenged. The Bulls have to make the Pacers work hard and earn every point they score and every rebound they get. One of the keys to Chicago’s victory the other night was the team’s high level of scrappiness at both ends of the floor. This year’s Bulls squad will never be confused with the high-flying Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of the late 1980s. To be successful, Chicago has to be unselfish, unyielding, hardnosed, blue collar and savvy in all phases of the game.
Offensively, the Bulls need to skip the ball from player-to-player, side-to-side. Chicago can’t afford to slow the pace of the game by simply walking it up the floor and fall into the trap of playing one-on-one. The ball cannot get stuck in anyone’s hands for too long. It needs to be shared freely while everyone moves about, cutting in and out of the paint and around the arc. The Bulls need to force Indiana to expend a lot of energy at the defensive end of the floor. The Pacers are playing their second game on the road in 24 hours, so nothing should come easy for them tonight.