Keys to the Game: Bulls at Thunder (01.15.21)

The Bulls tip-off a mini two-game Western Conference road swing with a stop in Oklahoma City this evening, followed by a Sunday afternoon matinee in Dallas. Fans can catch tonight's contest on NBC Sports Chicago+ or on the Bulls' radio network flagship station, WSCR-AM 670, beginning at 7:00 PM.

Chicago comes into tonight having dropped three straight following a heartbreaking 130-127 road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. The Bulls currently sit in fourth place in the Central Division 3 1/2 games behind the first place Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bulls were supposed to host Boston at the United Center this past Tuesday, but the game ended up being postponed by the NBA due to Covid issues for the Celtics. A makeup date will be announced at some point later this season.

In the meantime, Chicago hasn't had any problems scoring, as they've racked up 100+ points in 10 of 11 games this season and come in tonight ranked 6th in the league with an average of 116.1 points a game. However, defensively, there's a lot of work still to do as they haven't held any opponent under 100 and are giving up 121.1 points per game – 28th overall.

Oklahoma City has taken it on the chin in each of its last two outings, falling to San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. Against LA on Wednesday, the Lakers rolled to an easy 128-99 victory, dropping the Thunder's record to 5-6. OKC is currently tied for third place in the Northwest Division, two games behind the division leading Utah Jazz. The Thunder's normally stingy defense has allowed 100+ points in five of the last six games, and the way the Bulls have been scoring this season, it looks to be a safe bet that streak will extend to six out of seven by the end of the night.

As mentioned above, Chicago's defense has been very leaky to say the least. The Bulls have allowed between 117 and 130 points in each of their last three games – all of which resulted in a loss. On the defensive glass, Chicago is averaging just 35.0 rebounds per game while grabbing 8.4 boards offensively. Wendell Carter Jr. is the team's leading rebounder at 7.8, while Zach LaVine leads the team in steals (among many other statistical categories) at 1.3, with the team thieving at 7.5 per game. Reserve center Daniel Gafford is the Bulls' swat-leader with a team-best 1.1 blocks.

On offense, LaVine is enjoying a fantastic start to the season, leading the Bulls in scoring at 27.7 while shooting 49.1% from the field overall and 37.1% from long range. Over Chicago's last five games, LaVine has averaged a whopping 34.4 points, to go along with 5.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists, shooting 53.9% (62/115) overall. After LaVine, the Bulls have six other players averaging between 10.3 and 17.3 points. The dish-king for Chicago is second-year point guard Coby White at 6.2 assists per game. Overall, the Bulls are shooting a very respectable 47.7% from the field and 37.7% from beyond the three-point arc.

The Thunder are in the early stages of a rebuild, but the good news is they already have a promising young core in place led by guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The third-year former Kentucky Wildcat is averaging a team-best 20.5 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds, shooting 48.8% from the floor over 33 minutes a night. Over the Thunder's last five games, SGA is averaging 22.8 points on 56.5% from the field and 47.1% from downtown. Others have flashed plenty of potential this season, including Hamidou Diallo, Lugentz Dort, and Darius Bazley. No team in the league contests more shots per game than the Thunder, who come into tonight ranking 18th in the NBA with a 110.2 defensive rating.

The overall offense OKC generates on a nightly basis is another thing. The team scores just 104.1 points which is 28th in the league. A key reason why they have a hard time scoring looks to be their use of the shot clock, as they do not play fast, and they are not a lethal shooting team either, as they're hitting just 44.7% of their shots overall and 33.0% from behind the 3-point arc.

In order for Chicago's offense to take advantage of OKC's growing pains, the Bulls need to freely skip the ball from player-to-player and from side-to-side, forcing the Thunder's defense to scramble and burn extra energy protecting the hoop. Quick, smart decisions and deft passes also will help open driving lanes to the basket and generate uncontested shots from the perimeter. Chicago needs to play fast and can't allow themselves to bog its offense by standing around and watching one player go one-on-five. Constant ball and player movement – in and out of the paint – will always generate a free-flowing offensive rhythm. However, in doing so, it's imperative the Bulls keep turnovers to a minimum. So far this season Chicago has been way too generous when it comes to giving the ball away, leading the league in turnovers at 17.8. Against the Clippers the last time out, Chicago committed 23 turnovers that led to 31 points for LA, and a 3-point loss for the Bulls.

A major key to achieving success for Chicago, not only this evening but also going forward, will be to continue improving upon their communicating skills and their trust of each other at both ends of the floor. To get back on a winning track and start this two-game road trip on the right note tonight, Chicago must produce a hardnosed effort from tip-off until the final horn, especially on the boards, as well as down in the paint and under the basket.

If the Bulls hit the floor running and keep turnovers under control, and outwork the Thunder in the paint and on the glass, and out hustle OKC for every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves a terrific shot at being the last team standing at the end of the night.