Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics (03.12.17)

The Chicago Bulls (31-34) hit Beantown to meet up with the Atlantic Division leading Boston Celtics (41-25) to close out the season series. The Bulls have come out on top in two of the three games played so far, with both victories coming at the United Center. In the most recent matchup, Jimmy Butler was once again the hero as the sixth-year swingman calmly sank two free throws with 0.9 seconds left in the game to give the Bulls a 104-103 victory. Butler’s clutch charity lobs capped an unforgettable duel with Boston’s leading man, Isaiah Thomas, in the final game before the NBA All-Star break. Both Butler and Thomas finished the night with 29 points and seven assists.

Gang Green’s primary sparkplug is the abovementioned Isaiah Thomas, a 5’9” gutsy, charismatic, energizer bunny, scoring machine who often takes over games, especially during the 4th quarter. The sixth-year point guard out of the University of Washington, who by the way was the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, comes into this afternoon’s tilt second in the league in scoring, averaging 29.4 points a game.

Thomas has been torching the twine all year long, as earlier this season he strung together a 43-game streak of 20-or-more points scored, establishing an all-time franchise record. What’s even more incredible is the fact that he has failed to score 20 points in just three games — November 18th vs. Golden State (18) — February 27th vs. Atlanta (19) — and March 3rd at LA Lakers (18).

As for how potent Thomas has been late, he’s the league’s top 4th quarter scorer, averaging 10.3 points over the final 12 minutes. Four times this season he has really heated up, notching 20 or more during the last stanza. There isn’t another player in the league who has done anything close to what Thomas has in this regard.

A major indication as to just how well the Bulls are going to play is how active they are on the boards. Currently they are a slight tick behind Denver and Oklahoma City for the overall league lead in rebounding, grabbing a very healthy 46.2 per game (Denver - 46.3, OKC – 46.3). Chicago’s rebounding is strictly a team effort, as they don’t have any one player in the league’s top 20. However, when they wrestle command of the boards, good things typically happen. Coming into this afternoon the Bulls are 26-17 when the win the battle of the boards, and 5-16 when they don’t.

As for controlling the offensive glass, the Bulls have also been very effective. Currently they rank 1st in the league with an average of 12.6 per game, and in turn they also lead the NBA in second-chance scoring, posting a notable mark of 15.4 points a night. Since they aren’t a particularly good outside shooting team (Chicago ranks 27th with a 44.1% make rate), being able to put points on the board via put-backs has helped them compete and win a number of games.

Offensively, Chicago has proven to be at their most effective when they consistently push the ball up the floor, while also keeping it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For their offense to click, the pace of the game needs to be fast and the ball has to hop. It cannot end up glued onto anyone’s hands for too long. Every player on the court must be active and engaged.

The evidence is clear in this regard as per victory this season the Bulls have averaged 108.6 points scored while giving up just 97.4. They also shoot a very respectable 46.0% from the field and 34.9% from beyond the arc, while grabbing 49.5 rebounds and doling out 23.1 assists. But when the pace slows and the ball doesn’t freely move, Chicago comes up short far more often than not. Again, the proof is in the pudding as for every loss this season that Bulls average just 96.3 points scored while surrendering 108.5. They also shoot a lousy 42.3% from the field and a putrid 30.6% from the arc, while snaring only 42.9 rebounds and handing out 20.4 assists.

To this end, in order for the offense to get into gear the Bulls have to routinely spread out and space the floor while at the same time actively look for opportunities to attack the rim. As a team, they have done an outstanding job of forcing opponents into fouling and sending them to the free throw line. Heading into this weekend’s games, Chicago has tossed a grand total of 1,539 free throws while their opponents have only been able to attempt 1,229 — that’s an extra 310free throw attempts in favor of the Bulls. As for taking advantage of those extra free throws, the Bulls have connected 1,227 times from the charity stripe while opponents have only been able to hit 947 — which translates to a net of 280 extra points in favor of Chicago.

Three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler in particular has done an incredible job of forcing opposing defenses to overreact and foul. Not only is Butler putting up a career-best 23.8 points a game, but he ranks 3rd in the NBA in free-throws made (8.0), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.2), while converting at a career-high clip of 87.1%.

Chicago’s foremost assignment is to come out fast and aggressive at both ends of the floor today. From the opening tip until the final buzzer, the Bulls must play with a chip on their shoulder, refusing to back down from any challenge. Defensively, they have to communicate and stay tied together. They can’t afford to take possessions off or for granted. If they don’t grab the rebound, Chicago must hustle back on defense, and commit to shutting down paths to the basket. As a team, it’s vital they reinforce their blue-collar identity and not allow Thomas to drive the ball into the paint and find open shooters laying in the weeds out on the wings.

A complete team effort at both ends of the court will give the Bulls a good shot of stealing an important victory away from one of the NBA’s best. After today there are only 16 games left before the start of the playoffs. Chicago’s destiny lies in its hands in that if this team wants play deep into the spring, they need to win as many games as possible. Taking one on the road — in front of a hardcore, sold out crowd of leather-lunged Boston Celtics fans — would be a terrific step in the right direction. 

—   Anthony Hyde