Bulls

3 unsung keys to the Bulls' Game 1 victory over the Cavs

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3 unsung keys to the Bulls' Game 1 victory over the Cavs

The Bulls knocked off the Cavaliers, 99-92, in Game 1 to take back home court advantage in their best-of-seven series with the Eastern Conference favorites.

Here are three keys that may have gone unnoticed but led to that crucial victory:

Mike Dunleavy: Mike Dunleavy had to be the most difficult “Where’s Waldo” piece ever, because the Cavaliers couldn’t find him early at all. He came in shooting 55 percent from 3-point range and upped that percentage against a porous Cavs perimeter defense, hitting three of four and scoring 13 of the Bulls’ 27 first-quarter points.

Considering the Bulls had slow starts headed into Game 6 of the Bucks series, there was genuine concern if they could muster the requisite offense to match the expected production of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

[RELATED: Rose rises to the occasion, leads Bulls to Game 1 win]

Dunleavy did it himself, allowing Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose to work themselves into the game against a loose defense and a Cavs team that seemed quite unsure of the overall game plan.

Getting off to that 10-2 start was more than enough to quell every nervous tick in the Bulls’ psyche.

Controlling Tristan Thompson: One of the league’s most devastating offensive rebounders had very little effect on that end, and it wasn’t for lack of opportunities as the Cavaliers shot 42 percent from the field. Tristan Thompson found himself being face-guarded by Taj Gibson or Pau Gasol or Joakim Noah whenever a shot went up, as the Bulls were more than cognizant of the second shots Thompson creates.

He finished with three offensive rebounds but the Cavaliers finished with only 11, negating an advantage that was evident in the regular season when Thompson grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in an overtime win in Chicago in the opening days of the season.

[MORE: Bulls vs. Cavs -- Who's got the edge?]

“He’s probably as good as it gets in terms of going to the boards, and sometimes it requires more than one (guy),” Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s physical. We’ve got to make sure we keep a body on him. Sometimes you do that and he still manages to get to it.”

Clank, clank, clank: The Bulls held the Cavaliers to just 27 percent shooting from 3-point range, as they limited the open shots created by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to a minimum aside from Iman Shumpert. Irving and James shot under 50 percent, and combined to go 1-for-8 from 3-point range themselves. They truly miss Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, as Smith will be back for Game 3 in Chicago. Shumpert hit four of 10 triples, many of them contested and momentum-changing. But the Cavaliers’ other guys couldn’t take advantage of the chances they were given, leading to the Game 1 win.

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

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USA TODAY

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

1. Provide help defense on Joel Embiid early and often. Embiid's high usage rate means going to score regardless, and has even added moves like a step-back jumper that he can go to comfortably from 15-feet. But if you make him see multiple defenders and force him to be unsettled, you can harass him into poor shooting nights like Boston did (Embiid shot 9-for-21 on Tuesday night). There were plays where as soon as Embiid took one or two dribbles, a help defender—even a guard—was flying in to go for block shot opportunities.

Wendell Carter Jr. earned the starting center job with his ahead-of-his-age defensive IQ, but no matter how ahead of the curve he is, stopping Embiid will take a group effort. He can become enamored with the 3-point shot, so the Bulls will have to work together to coax Embiid into taking poor shot attempts. Boston did a great job of denying him deep post position om Tuesday night, cutting off the Sixers' easiest source of offensive production.

Wendell Carter Jr. will get his first big defensive test on Thursday night, as he will have to use his lower body strength to prevent Embiid's low post dominance. We have seen Carter struggle with bigger low post scorers in the preseason, and if the Bulls don't provide help fast, Carter will be in trouble.

If Carter does what many rookies do, and tries to use his hands to stop Embiid from gaining ground, the referees will call a foul quickly, especially since he is a rookie learning the ropes. Helpside defense will be the difference in this game for the Bulls.

2. Get back quickly and build a wall on transition defense. Below is the combined shot chart of Embiid and Ben Simmons from Tuesday night against the Celtics. Notice where the attempts are mostly concentrated. 

Ben Simmons and Embiid like to put pressure on the opposing defense by putting pressure on the front of the basket, and with good reason. They are both dominant finishers in the paint and questionable outside shooters.

In 207-18 Embiid shot 57 percent when 0-3 feet from the basket, Simmons shot a staggering 83 percent in the 0-3 foot range, which is even more impressive when you consider that defenses are gameplanning for his drives. We all know that Simmons will likely never be an even average 3-point shooter, and Embiid shot a dreadful 25 percent from the 3-point line last season despite a career-high 214 attempts. But the above the break 3-point shot is a major part of the Philadelphia offense, with Embiid shooting a much better 30.4 percent on above the break 3-pointers. 

Chicago would be wise to let the Sixers get these shots. 

In transition Simmons (or Markelle Fultz) will run the break with Embiid trailing directly behind them, either looking for a straight-line drive to the basket or an above the break 3-pointer after their forward momentum has been stopped. 

If the Bulls can summon the words of former Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and form a wall around the restricted area, they can wall off aggressive drives from the Sixers young, dynamic duo. The Bulls need to force this game to be about turnovers and free throw makes, areas in which the Sixers have struggled last season (dead-last in the league in turnovers and 23rd in FT percentage).

3. Force the defense to move side-to-side. Philadelphia had a top-five defensive rating last season, and a big reason for that was that while the Sixers would often switch one through four, they wouldn't switch the five, meaning Embiid was often dropping back on pick-and-roll D and stationing himself near the basket. Staying as close as possibe to the rim obviously is beneficial to the Embiid, who has averaged 2 blocks per game for his career. But when you get Philly's aggressive defense to shift, they try to jump passing lanes to ignite their fastbreak, which can lead to plays like this:

The above play contains the exact type of ball-movement and cutting principles that Fred Hoiberg has stressed throughout the preseason.

Zach LaVine is the type of quick, explosive guard that the Sixers can have trouble containing with their personnel, more so that they are depending on Fultz so much. But if the Bulls get bogged down into a bunch of one-on-one play, it will allow Embiid to sit back and be a huge deterrent at the rim.

Carter's ability to stretch the floor—along with Bobby Portis' shooting—should be enough of a threat to keep Embiid occupied, but if not he will not respect their shots, and simply clog up driving lanes.

Handoff plays contained some of Carter's best moments this preseason, so we should expect to see Hoiberg call for lots of plays that get a Bulls guard or wing attacking a backpedaling big.