Keys to the Game: Bulls at Thunder (12.16.19)

The Bulls stop by Oklahoma City this evening to tip-off a four-game road trip against the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. After tonight's contest Chicago will travel to Washington, Detroit, and Orlando before coming back home in time for Christmas.

After only scoring 73 points and losing by 10 to the Charlotte Hornets on Friday, the Bulls turned the tables 24 hours later by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers, 109-106, Saturday. Once again Zach LaVine led the way with 31 points, including a decisive game-winning 3-point play with just two seconds left on the clock.

Lauri Markkanen also enjoyed a productive night on the hardwood, scoring 13 points and grabbing a game-high 17 rebounds, while Thaddeus Young and Denzel Valentine added 17 and 16 points apiece off the Bulls bench.

Tonight's matchup is the start of a five-game homestand for OKC. After winning three-in-a-row, included two on the road, the Thunder come into tonight having dropped two straight games. On Saturday OKC fell, 110-102, in Denver. Dennis Schroder posted 22 points for the Thunder, followed by center Steven Adams with 18 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 16. Future Hall of Fame floor general Chris Paul finished with a double-double of 15 points and 10 assists.

An interesting key for tonight's game will be how explosive Zach LaVine's offense plays out. When the Bulls win the 6'5 swingman is scoring 27.1 points, and shoots 51.7% from the field and a blistering 57.5% from downtown. However, when the Bulls lose, LaVine still puts up an impressive 20.2 points but shoots only 38.5% from the field and 32.4% from distance.

As for the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has been their driving force this season with a team-leading 18.5 points per game, followed by veterans Danilo Gallinari (17.6) and Dennis Schroder (17.0), who usually comes off the bench. Starting center Steven Adams leads the team on the glass at 9.5 rebounds while Paul leads in assists (6.3).

For Chicago to come out on top tonight they're going to need to continue delivering blue-collar efforts in every phase of the game. When the Bulls establish a fast pace from the start, they tend to do well. In 28 games so far this season Chicago has outscored opponents 740-713 in the opening quarter. That +27-point differential ranks ninth best in the league.

However, despite the team usually getting off to fast starts the Bulls have hard time sustaining momentum the rest of the game. So not only will they need another explosive start tonight, they're going to have to keep the energy pumping for all 48 minutes of the game.

Therefore, it's vital for Chicago to play unselfishly, freely sharing the ball with one another, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while always looking to exploit every opportunity to drive to the front of the rim.

All five Bulls on the court need to stay involved in what's going on in front of them. Simply put, the offense can't turn into a series of one-on-one battles.

Defensively Chicago must also produce a rugged defensive tone from the start. Every defender needs to stick close to their assigned man and be willing to go hard after every rebound and loose ball.

Coming into tonight the Bulls lead the league in opponent turnovers (18.4) and scoring off turnovers (21.4 per game). Nine times this season they have been able to coerce opponents to committing 20-or-more turnovers, the most in the league. To achieve success tonight Chicago will need to quickly recognize when to jump passing lanes and double-team the ball, knocking OKC's offense on its heels.

Another interesting stat to keep an eye on is how well the Bulls defend the 3-point arc. Over the last 10 games, Chicago opponents have hit just 30.9% of their shots from behind the arc. Overall, foes are shooting 32.3% from 3-point range, the second-lowest mark in the league.

Gallinari poses the biggest Thunder threat from downtown. The 6'10 veteran power forward is launching on average 6.9 shots from behind the arc and connecting on a team-leading 38.8%. Schroder comes in next with 5.0 long distance attempts, hitting 33.9%.