Keys to the Game: Bulls at Thunder (02.01.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (24-25) embark on a two-week, six-game Western Conference road trip with a visit to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder (28-21), who are coming off a disappointing 108-94 loss to the Spurs last night in San Antonio.

Since the start of the 2009-10 season, the Thunder have won five Northwest Division titles, reached the Western Conference Finals four times and the NBA Finals once, amassing an impressive regular season record of 399-207 (.658). However, this year’s squad looks a lot different from previous versions after losing Kevin Durant to free agency and the trading away of Serge Ibaka last summer. Nevertheless, six-time All-Star Russell Westbrook, whom many claim to be the most entertaining player in the game, still calls OKC home, and the Thunder are once again considered to be a legitimate title contender.

Westbrook, who stands 6’3” and weighs 200-pounds, is in the midst of a historic campaign, one in which he could end up being the first since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double over an entire season. Westbrook comes into tonight’s contest sporting career-bests of 30.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.3 assists. The nine-year superstar has posted 24 triple-doubles so far, to which the Thunder have gone 18-6.

Chicago’s Jimmy Butler has been pretty impressive himself this season. The 6th year swingman has posted five 40-point games, and along with Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden, they are the only players in the league to knock down at least 55 3-pointers and convert 375-or-more free-throws. And speaking of free-throws, Butler has lived quite well at the line in 2016-17. He enters tonight ranking third in the NBA in free-throws made per game (8.3), and fourth in free-throws attempted (9.5).

Butler has posted seven games of 15-or-more made free-throws, which is second-best in the league, and has notched 18-games of 10-or-more made charity tosses.

Butler, who will be making a third straight All-Star appearance and his first as a starter later this month, is averaging career-highs of 24.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 45.3% from the field and 87.0% from the stripe.  

On the season, Chicago has frequently achieved success when they come out of the blocks fast and aggressive. Consequently, if they are to give themselves a chance of beating one of the NBA’s best teams while on the road, the Bulls will need to sport a gritty mindset and quickly establish and sustain an assertive pace from the moment the ball is tipped-off through the final buzzer.

A key factor as to whether or not the Bulls are on their game is how well they do on the boards. Currently they lead the NBA in rebounding with an average of 47.2, but OKC is right on the heels with a mark of 45.7. The Bulls are also the league’s No. 1 team on the offensive glass, averaging 13.2 per game. However, the Thunder once again are not far behind at 11.2.

A byproduct of being a strong rebounding team, especially one that usually commands the offensive window, is that you typically are able to score easy baskets via put-backs. The Bulls have often taken advantage of this as they lead the NBA in second-chance scoring with a mark of 15.8 per game. However, nothing will come easy this evening as OKC is also right up there as well, averaging 13.8 second-chance points a night.

Since the Bulls have not been a particularly good perimeter shooting team, their ability to post easy scores via put-backs has helped them win a number of games. So far Chicago has gone 20-15 when they win the overall battle of the boards, and 19-17 when they outscore the opposition by way of second-chance points. Likewise, OKC is 21-11 when they own the glass, but they are just 7-10 when they don’t, and oddly, OKC has a losing record (13-14) when they score more second-chance points.

Offensively, the Bulls certainly need to take care of the ball by keeping turnovers to a minimum, while at the same time consistently push it up the floor at a quick and steady pace.

Chicago is 12-8 whenever they outscore an opponent in transition, and are 12-3 when they post more assists. Thus, in order to achieve success this evening, the Bulls will need to play a very unselfish game, persistently keeping the ball on the move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Chicago always has trouble scoring whenever they fall into the trap of isolation play, where one player looks to beat his defender one-on-one instead of keeping everyone involved and engaged in the action.

Another important aspect to winning tonight is getting a positive contribution off the bench. In the Bulls last game, 121-108 victory over a hot Philadelphia 76ers squad Sunday at the United Center, Chicago’s bench outscored the Philly’s pine brothers, 49-15. Veteran Rajon Rondo tallied eight points, five rebounds and 10 assists with zero turnovers in 21 minutes, while rookie Paul Zipser pitched in 13 points off the bench. Over his last six games, Zipser has opened a lot of eyes by putting up 9.5 points in 23 minutes of action. Fellow reservists Doug McDermott and Niko Mirotic are also being counted on each night to provide the Bulls some much needed offensive punch off the bench.

To that end, no matter who is on the court at any given time, Chicago needs to space the floor, spreading players evenly along the perimeter, and with an exception of one or two, far from the paint, in order to draw the defense away from the rim.

As a team, the Bulls have done an excellent job of getting fouled and making their way to the free throw line, as they’ve taken 1,207 trips to the charity stripe and connected on 969 attempts, shooting an impressive 80.3%, while opponents have made only 908 trips (299 less than the Bulls), and hit on just 690 attempts (279 less than Chicago) for a rather mediocre 76.0% success rate.

In short, Chicago’s task this evening is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and never back off. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls need to sport a nasty attitude and be tenacious in every phase of the contest. They have to take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — they have to play unselfish and keep everyone involved. And they most definitely, they cannot allow OKC, and in particular, Westbrook, too many opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

—    Anthony Hyde