Keys to the Game: Bulls at Cavaliers (10.24.17)

by Anthony Hyde

Tonight the Bulls are back on the road, this time visiting the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena in the first of four regular season matchups scheduled for this season. The Central Division rivals will meet one more time in Cleveland (December 21st) and twice back at the United Center (December 4th and March 17, 2018) to wrap up the series.

The NBA schedule makers sure didn’t do the Bulls any favors to open the 2017-18 campaign, as Chicago’s first three opponents (at Toronto, San Antonio and at Cleveland) went a combined 163-83 (.663) last year. Add to the fact the Bulls are at the very beginning stages of a complete roster rebuild (the average age of Chicago’s squad is 24.5 years of age, the youngest in the league), and will be missing a couple of key players who are still recovering from injuries (Zach LaVine / torn ACL, Kris Dunn / dislocated finger, Niko Mirotic / facial fractures) and one who is on a team-imposed suspension (Bobby Portis / fighting), it can’t come as a shock Chicago is likely to face a steep uphill battle. However, the Cavs are also missing a couple of key players tonight, in that former Bulls guard Derrick Rose will sit out after suffering a severely sprained ankle the other night, as will recent pick-up Isaiah Thomas, whom Cleveland acquired from Boston via a blockbuster trade prior to the start of the season. Rose should be back in action later this week, whereas Thomas won’t see the court until sometime in January due to a severe hip injury suffered during the playoffs last year.

In order for the Bulls to stay competitive and pull an upset this evening the team is going to have to do a far better job of keeping turnovers in check. In the losses to both Toronto and San Antonio, Chicago turned the ball over a whopping 19 times each contest, which is far too many. Generally teams strive to keep turnovers to 13 and below a game, so obviously 19 simply won’t cut it. However, focusing to be more careful with the ball doesn’t mean cut down on passes. In the Bulls case, quite the opposite needs to happen in order for them to be successful.

Head Coach Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system thrives when the ball is crisply and freely shared among all five players on the floor. The offense bogs down whenever it is stuck in anyone’s hands for too long a stretch. It must swing from side-to-side and player-to-player in order to force the opponent’s defense onto its heels and hopefully breakdown. Also, the Bulls don’t necessarily need to take quick shots, but find rather open shots from any number of places on the floor. Look for the Bulls to spread the court, stationing shooters all along the arc in order to force the defense away from the rim and open driving lanes to the basket. Chicago’s guards, in particular Jerian Grant and Kay Felder, will then need to aggressively go on the attack, regularly driving the ball deep into the paint in order to create havoc for Cleveland’s defense. If the Cavs defense slides down low and attempts to double Grant and/or Felder before they get to the rim, those players will have to quickly find an open shooter out on the perimeter and pass the ball out to him.

Defensively, the Bulls are going to need to do a great job of communicating with one another and play as a cohesive unit. Cleveland is loaded with a number of explosive players, all of whom are capable to taking over a game at a moment’s notice. One such player is LeBron James, who most, if not all, consider to be the best all-around player in the game today. There really isn’t anything he can’t do if he sets his mind to it. Thus any chance of slowing James down this evening will have to be a team effort.

Look for the Bulls to attempt at least 30 shots from beyond the arc tonight. If they can come out quickly and establish a fast and aggressive pace, keeping everyone involved at both ends of the floor they’ll give themselves a legitimate chance of coming out on top.

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