Keys to the Game: Bulls at Spurs (03.27.21)

The new look Chicago Bulls take the floor this evening in the Alamo City for a rematch against the San Antonio Spurs, tipping off a four game Western Conference road trek.

Tonight's contest also closes the book on the season series. The teams met previously on St. Patrick's Day in the Windy City, with the Spurs coming out on top, 106-99.

Chicago got off to a fast start, sprinting to a 31-17 edge after one quarter, and holding San Antonio to its lowest scoring half of the season, leading 58-40 at the break.

San Antonio was able to whittle the Bulls' edge a bit in the third, trailing by 13 points heading into the final stanza, 80-67. That's when the wheels came off for the Bulls, as the Spurs went on a 12-0 run to open the period, drawing within a point, before Chicago countered with a 9-2 run of their own. Unfortunately, the Bulls couldn't hold the lead for long as the Spurs kicked it back into gear, reeling off 17 straight points to take the lead for good, outscoring Chicago 39-19 in the fourth quarter to win the game.

San Antonio forward Jakob Poeltl tied a career high with 20 points to go along with 16 rebounds, while Derrick White chipped in 17 (including nine points in the final quarter). Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Patty Mills each scored 14 for the Spurs.

Zach LaVine led Chicago, and all scorers, with a game-high 29 points, as Thaddeus Young, playing his 1,000th NBA game, also contributed 16. Rookie Patrick Williams grabbed a personal-best 14 rebounds and scored 10 points for his third double-double on the season.

A key factor in the game's outcome was the major free throw disparity between the teams. The Spurs shot 22 for 30 from the charity stripe while Chicago went 8 for 9 the entire night. In fact, LaVine, with just three free throw attempts, was the only Chicago starter to get to the line.

In the hope of bolstering its roster for a legitimate playoff run and to set itself up for more success down the road, the Bulls were extremely busy at the trade deadline, acquiring five new players Thursday afternoon. That list includes two-time All-Star Nikola Vučević from the Orlando Magic, a move made with the clear intention of getting its own first-time All-Star, Zach LaVine, some much-needed help.

Vučević fills a major void for Chicago in the middle. The 6'11, 30-year-old pivot arrives averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6% from long distance, and is one of only four in the league averaging 24+ points and 10+ rebounds a game.

Vučević currently leads the NBA in total defensive rebounds with 430 and ranks third in overall rebounds at 517 boards. He is also third in double-doubles with 30 and sports a career mark of 355.

Needless to say, it'll be fascinating to see Vučević and LaVine mesh, as potentially they give Chicago one of the most prolific offensive 1-2 punches in all of basketball.

Although the Bulls come in tonight five games under .500 at 19-24, they sit 10th in the Eastern Conference standings and have a real shot at making the postseason due to both the new play-in tournament format and the lack of separation between every team in the East that isn't Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee.

In order for Chicago's offense to be successful the ball must freely skip from player-to-player. Persistent sharing of the ball routinely compels defenses to scramble and oftentimes overreact and fall apart.

When the ball consistently hops between players, driving lanes frequently open for attackers to take the ball to the hoop for easy scores and earn extra trips to the free throw line. Continual sharing also helps shooters stationed around the three-point arc to gain clean looks at the basket for uncontested or lightly contested jumpers.

The biggest thing Chicago has to avoid is slowing its pace and allowing its attack to morph into an isolation tactic where one player looks to take his defender one-on-one. Selfless sharing of the ball with constant player and ball movement always generates an efficient and potent offensive assault.

Another major aspect of its offensive game plan the Bulls need to continue working on is keeping turnovers to no more than a dozen a game. Winning teams don't carelessly toss the ball away whenever an opponent applies extra pressure. So far this season the Bulls have been one of the NBA's worst turnover teams, and that must change right away, as after tonight Chicago has only 28 games left. If the Bulls intend to earn an invite to the playoffs, tonight's a perfect opportunity to turn the page when it comes to turnovers.

As for the Spurs, they've gone 1-4 since beating the Bulls 10 days ago, dropping four in a row including back-to-back home games against the LA Clippers this week, 134-101 on Wednesday, and 98-85, Thursday.

In Thursday's contest, San Antonio rallied in the second quarter after another slow start to lead 55-49 at halftime. Spurs guard Derrick White opened the third quarter with a three-pointer to give San Antonio its largest lead of the night, but it didn't last long.

In a back-and-forth battle, the Spurs trailed by one, 80-79, with 7:18 left in the game when Keldon Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and passed it to teammate Rudy Gay for a layup. However, LA closed the night with an 18-6 run, as the Clippers held the Spurs to a season low 30 points in the second half to win by 13 points.

DeMar DeRozan led the Spurs with 23 points, while Dejounte Murray added 18 points with six rebounds and seven assists. The Clippers were led by 20-point performances from Reggie Jackson (28) and Paul George (24), who also contributed 13 rebounds and four assists.

In dropping four straight, San Antonio has slipped to 8th in the West. During this period, they've had trouble scoring, being held to under 102 points three times. However, veteran wing DeMar DeRozan continues playing at a high level, in that he is shooting the ball at an elite clip of 49.1% and averaging over 20 points a night. With his fair share of ball-handling duties, DeRozan has also improved his overall game, dishing a season-high 7.1 dimes per matchup, and shooting a personal best from the free throw line at 88.2%. He missed the first game against the Bulls but is expected to be in the starting lineup tonight.

Getting back to the Bulls, a key factor defensively for Chicago will be to continue doing a solid job of running San Antonio's shooters off the 3-point line. So far, the Bulls have limited opponents to 11.3 three-pointers a game, and an ordinary 34.7% make rate from the arc, both ranking Chicago as the league's third-best downtown defenders. The Spurs this season haven't been all that lethal from deep, but that doesn't mean they aren't capable of getting hot if left alone.

Besides shutting down the arc, the Bulls also need to buckle down in the paint and on the boards to make the Spurs work hard for every shot and point they get this evening.

Achieving each of these goals would give the Bulls the ability to dictate the pace of the game and also grant them a number of opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

If Chicago shows up with an aggressive mindset and sustains that intensity for all four quarters, they'll give themselves a great shot of tipping off this new era of Bulls basketball on a winning note.