Keys to the Game: Bulls at Magic (02.22.19)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (14-44) visit Central Florida to take on the Orlando Magic (27-32) for the fourth and final time this season. The Magic have won two of the first three meetings, the last of which took place on Chicago’s West Side on January 2nd. That night Orlando snapped a six-game losing streak in blowing out the Bulls, 112-84. Forward Aaron Gordon powered the Magic with 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, while Antonio Blakeney and Shaquille Harrison each posted 11 off the bench to lead Chicago.

Orlando hits the home hardwood this evening hoping the just concluded NBA All-Star hiatus hasn’t killed or slowed the momentum they had built with a five game winning streak heading into the break. The last time they played the Magic thumped Charlotte, 127-89, behind reserve forward Terrence Ross’ 21 points off the bench. Starting center and recent All-Star Nikola Vucevic also notched his fifth straight double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Gordon chipped in 10 points and 10 rebounds. Vucevic is enjoying the best season of his eight-year career, averaging 20.5 points and 12.1 rebounds. So far he’s led the Magic in scoring 26 times, rebounding a team-high 47 times and in assists on 12 occasions. He’s also posted a team-best 41 double-doubles, which currently ranks fourth in the league.

Like the Magic, the Bulls are also coming off an impressive win the last time they played, defeating Memphis at the United Center, 122-110. As a team, the Bulls shot 56.3 percent from the field overall, including going 8-of-20 from behind the 3-point arc (40 percent), and dominated the glass, outrebounding the Grizzlies 47-31. Newly acquired forward Otto Porter Jr. shot a scorching 16-of-20 from the field, including 3-of-5 from deep, to lead Chicago with 37 points.

In four games with the Bulls, Porter Jr. is hitting a ridiculous 62.1 percent of his shots overall while averaging 22.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in almost 35 minutes.

Another key Chicago player of late has been second-year forward Lauri Markkanen. The seven-foot Finn has posted 20+ points and snared 10+ rebounds in five-consecutive games. It’s the first time in his career he’s notched five straight double-doubles, and if he can put 20 or more points on the board again tonight it’ll be the seventh straight time he would have accomplished such a feat. Over his last five games Markkanen is contributing 24.4 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, while shooting 14-of-35 (40.0%) from behind the arc, and 42-of-89 (47.2%) overall.

Zach LaVine has also been playing the best ball of his career recently. The 6’5 guard has been torching the twine to the tune of 24.4 points, shooting 9-of-22 (40.9%) from deep, 45-of-84 (53.6%) overall, as well as 23-of-29 (79.3%) from the charity stripe while dishing 6.4 assists over his last five outings.

Although Chicago’s won-loss record isn’t anything to brag about, the truth is the Bulls’ offense has begun the really click recently. For example, Chicago averaged just 95.6 points per game in December, with a rather paltry offensive rating of 97.0. In January, they averaged 104.0 points per game, with a mediocre offensive rating of 102.7. But in six February contests, the Bulls are putting up 118.2 points with an impressive offensive rating of 115.9.

In order for Chicago to come out on top tonight they’re going to have to focus on out hustling Orlando at both ends of the floor.

Offensively the Bulls need to keep the ball moving from player-to-player to get everyone involved in the action. The ball must also skip from side-to-side to force the Magic’s defense to scramble and burn energy. To that end Chicago’s primary playmakers (Kris Dunn, LaVine, Markkanen as well as Porter Jr.) have to hit the floor with the same aggressive mindset and attack the rim at every opportunity.

Defensively as a team, Chicago will need to keep Vucevic in check, especially on the glass, forcing him out of his comfort zone as much as possible. If the Bulls can hold their own or possibly even assume command of the defensive boards, they should be able to exploit their overall athleticism by consistently grabbing control of the ball and running down the floor to post quick and easy scores before Orlando has time to set up.

Starting point guard, Kris Dunn, missed the Memphis game last week after taking a hard fall a couple of nights earlier against Milwaukee. The third-year playmaker practiced Wednesday and yesterday and should be good to go tonight. Dunn’s blue collar, hardnosed mentality will no doubt be a welcome addition to Chicago’s attack.