Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Warriors (03.02.17)

Facing the league’s top-ranked offensive team under normal circumstances is
tough enough, but taking them on two days after surrendering 125 points to a
sub-.500 crew? And oh, that top-ranked squad you’re going up against also
happens to sport the league’s best record (50-10) and hits town ticked-off after
suffering a rare loss in which they also witnessed one of their elite players go
down to injury as a result of an unsportsmanlike play? Yeah, that doesn’t sound
good. In fact, it could easily spell “Trouble” with a capital “T” for a team
like the Chicago Bulls (30-30).

Tuesday night the Bulls allowed the most points they have given up all season to
the 28-win Denver Nuggets — the 8th seeded team in the West. Tonight they get
to face the No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors who simply “average” 118.1 points
every time they show up to work. Yes, I said average, as in typical, nothing all
that special or extraordinary.

On paper, it clearly looks to be a long night for Chicago, but thankfully the
NBA doesn’t play any of its games on paper. In fact, they actually play all
their games inside very large arenas in front of thousands of raucous fans —
and on a night like tonight — this one will also be played on national TV in
front of an audience of millions. And if you’re a die-hard Bulls fan who also
happens to be a little superstitious, well, you’re probably comforted — at
least a little bit — that Chicago has won its last 16 Thursday night,
nationally televised home games on TNT — oh, and Marv Albert is also handling
TNT’s play-by-play duties, too — YYYEEESSSSS!

As mentioned earlier, Golden State comes to town on the heels of a 112-108 loss
in Washington the other evening. With just 22 games remaining before the start
of the playoffs, that setback coupled with the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant
(25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks), who is expected to miss the next
four to six weeks with a sprained left MCL, is essentially being written off as
a bump in the road for a team that every basketball pundit believes will end up
making its third straight NBA Finals appearance by the time June rolls around.
Even without Durant, the Warriors are still very much a powerhouse as they have
three other gold medal winning US Olympians on the roster in the likes of Steph
Curry (24.8 points, 6.3 assists and 40.4% 3FG%), Klay Thompson (21.9 points, 2.1
assists and 41.5% 3FG%) and Draymond Green, who leads Golden State in assists
(7.3), steals (2.1), and is second in rebounding (8.1) and blocks (1.4). In
fact, Green’s game is so unique, earlier this season he became the first player
in league history to post a triple-double while scoring less than 10 points.
That night the former Michigan State All-American grabbed 11 rebounds, handed
out 10 assists and established a franchise record of 10 steals.

A little over three weeks ago the Bulls met the Warriors in Oakland, California,
where the ‘Dubs put on a virtual clinic on the virtues of sharing the ball and
knocking down open shots, defeating Chicago 123-92. Golden State handed out 37
assists on 48 made field goals, and hit 15 of 28 3-pointers, shooting 56.5%
overall. Durant posted 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals,
while Thompson scored 28 points, hitting six shots from distance. Green also
chipped in 19 points and knocked down 5 long balls. However, to be fair, the
Bulls were shorthanded as Chicago’s top two players, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane
Wade, missed the game due to injury. Barring something unforeseen, both Butler
and Wade will be in the Bulls’ lineup tonight.

Besides obviously upping their defensive intensity, key factors for Chicago
tonight will be how well the team rebounds and whether or not they can wrestle
control of the paint or at worst, hold their own down low. The Bulls enter as
the NBA’s No. 3 rebounding team (46.3), but just as importantly, they are
league’s best offensive window cleaners, snaring 12.7 miscues a night. A vital
aspect that goes hand-in-hand with offensive rebounding is second-chance
scoring, and just as strong as they are on the offensive glass, the Bulls are
also the league leaders in this category, posting an impressive mark of 15.6
second-helpers a game. Thus if they’re going to pull off an upset this evening,
Chicago will definitely need to dominate the offensive boards and post plenty of
easy put-back points up on the board.

Offensively, keeping turnovers in check while also doing a good job of sharing
the ball, passing it from player-to-player and from side-to-side in constant
search for an open shot or path the hoop, is also vital for the Bulls tonight.
Over their last five games, four of which were victories, Chicago has averaged
112.2 points on 27.2 assists and while turning the ball over just 11 times.

Another important key will be what kind of contribution the Bulls get from its
bench. Chicago’s reserves have played a major role in the team’s recent stretch
of success, chipping in 49.6 points over its last five contests, including 51
points the other night in the loss to Denver. In particular, Nikola Mirotic
(13.3 points, 55.0 FG %, 46.7 3FG % and 6.3 rebounds) and rookie Denzel
Valentine (11 points, 55.0 FG %, 50.0 3FG %) have provided the biggest sparks
off the pine over the last three games.

Much like the Warriors, the Bulls will need to space the floor if they are going
to have a chance to win. It’s vital Chicago unswervingly place shooters all
around the floor and avoid clogging paths to the basket. Doing so forces the
defense to stray from the paint and offers opportunities to aggressively drive
the ball to the rim.

As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of making their way to free throw
line. They come into tonight’s game ranking in the top 10 in attempted free
throws per game (24.2) and made free throws (19.3). Overall, they are shooting
an impressive 80% from the charity stripe.

Chicago’s primary task tonight is to come out fast and aggressive from the
opening tip. They need to take command of the boards, and at no time can they
afford to relax. The Warriors like to run and shoot 3s. Golden State leads the
league in fast-break scoring (23.2) and has gone 23-2 whenever they post 25 or
more fast-break points. Thus they will look to turn tonight’s contest into a
track meet, and if they succeed, it can easily turn into a rout. Consequently,
it’s vital the Bulls always hustle back defensively in order to limit Golden
State’s opportunities to get into transition.

Chicago will also have to physically run Golden State off the 3-point arc at
every turn. That is a full-time job in and of itself, but no team can ever
afford to give the Warriors’ dead-eye snipers open looks at the iron. The ‘Dubs
average a whopping 31.4 three-point attempts a game and are the NBA’s No. 3 long
distance shooters (38.5%) overall. They have hit at least 10 long balls 44 times
this season, hence Chicago’s defense has to keep a close eye on the arc and
forcefully contest every shot attempted in order to have a puncher’s chance of
coming out on top.

— Anthony Hyde

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