Keys to the Game: Bulls at Pacers (04.06.21)

After getting to spend Easter Sunday at home, the Chicago Bulls are back on the road tonight tipping off a five games in seven days road trip, with the first at Indiana, closing the book on the season series with the Pacers. The teams split the first two meetings, so tonight's contest determines the series winner. Tip-off from Bankers Life Fieldhouse is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago and WBBM 780 AM.

Chicago snapped a six-game losing streak Sunday afternoon by defeating the Eastern Conference leading Brooklyn Nets, 115-107. New Bulls center, Nikola Vučević notched his second double-double since arriving from Orlando at the trade deadline, with 22 points and 13 rebounds, while Zach LaVine led the team in scoring with 25 points. Tomáš Satoranský also posted a season-high 19 points and 11 assists, as six Bulls recorded double figures in the scoring ledger.

Brooklyn got off to a quick start and led by as many as nine points in the opening quarter, but Chicago was able to close the gap to 28-25, and then went on to post a 32-18 advantage in the second for a 57-46 lead at halftime. The Bulls closed the first half with a 16-5 run with Satoranský leading the way with nine points.

Chicago continued its surge early in the second half, extending its advantage to 74-56 midway through the third quarter, before holding an 89-72 edge heading into the fourth.

Brooklyn was able to pull within seven points on a couple of occasions late in the game, but LaVine sealed the victory with a clutch three-pointer with just 1:22 remaining to make the score, 112-102, before the final horn sounded with Chicago ahead, 115-107.

Bulls second-year guard Coby White sat out the Nets game because of the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols. However, as of this writing, it's looking like White has cleared all the necessary hurdles and will be back in the lineup tonight in Indiana.

As for Indiana, the Pacers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 139-133, in overtime last Saturday down in the Alamo City. Indy wing Caris LeVert scored 26 points to lead the short-handed Pacers, who snapped a three-game losing streak.

Indiana posted a season-high point total despite not having All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Jeremy Lamb available. Aaron Holiday, Myles Turner and T.J. McConnell stepped up big-time as each scored 18 points for the Pacers. In fact, McConnell and Turner combined for 11 points in overtime to lead the Pacers to the win.

Brogdon missed his second straight game with a sore right hip, but was moving freely during a brief, pre-game workout. Sabonis missed the Spurs game with a bruised left quadricep and balky ankle after playing 27 minutes against Charlotte despite the injuries the night before. And Lamb was out with an injured toe. It was Lamb's third straight night off.

As of this writing, all three Pacers have been listed as questionable for tonight's tilt. Brogdon leads Indiana in scoring at 21.2 points a game, while Sabonis is close behind at 19.9, to go along with 11.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Sabonis is a special player in that he's recorded six triple-doubles this season and has 10 for his career. No Bulls player has recorded a triple-double this season. If he can't answer the bell tonight, the Bulls will have to take advantage of that and look to get into the paint early and often, pounding the Pacers under the hoop and on the glass as much as possible.

The primary key for the Bulls is to always show up focused and locked in at both ends of the floor. Defensively, Chicago has done a solid job of running shooters off the three-point line. The Bulls rank 2nd in the league in holding opponents to 11.4 treys a game and 5th in allowing a below-average 35.2% shooting clip from deep. Chicago must also come together as a collective unit by refusing passage through the paint and not allow Indiana opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

For Chicago's offense to click, the ball must freely skip from player-to-player. Quick ball movement forces defenses to scramble, overreact, and oftentimes needlessly foul.

Besides earning extra trips to the free throw line, free-flowing passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim. Recently the Bulls have toned down their offensive scheme a bit, but not to the extent of becoming a true "walk the ball down the court" offense.

The addition of All-Star center Nikola Vučević gives Chicago an effective weapon near the hoop. The beauty of his all-around game is he not only has a deft shooting touch near the iron, but he is also capable of stepping outside and knocking-down threes from behind the arc.

Defenses cannot afford to cheat off of Vučević by keeping their center under the basket whenever he steps outside. Thus, whenever Vučević steps out, the middle of the paint opens for Chicago's guards and wings, Zach LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Thaddeus Young, in particular, to slash to the hoop for easy layups or make their way to the free throw line after getting fouled. That's another reason why the ball needs to move fast and free.

Another offensive key for Chicago is to take care of the ball, keeping turnovers to a minimum. Most nights the Bulls' margin for error is small. They don't have to play a perfect game to win, but they can't be sloppy and expect to survive either. The last couple of games the Bulls have kept turnovers to single-digits, which is a big step up from what has occurred most of the season, as they've been at or near the bottom of the league in this category.

To sum everything up, if the Bulls hit the hardwood sporting a scrappy attitude and bring that edge throughout the entire night, outhustling and outworking Indiana for every available rebound and loose ball, and work together by calling out and rotating on defense, they'll give themselves a terrific chance to capture the season series against a longtime division rival, while also continuing to build confidence as they make a late season playoff push.