Keys to the Game: Bulls at Timberwolves (02.24.18)

Tonight the Bulls visit the Minnesota Timberwolves to close out the season series. In the first get together on February 9th at the United Center Chicago rallied from an early 17-point deficit to escape with a 114-113 upset victory. Zach LaVine led the Bulls' attack with a season-high 35 points, while former Bulls star Jimmy Butler posted 38 for Minnesota.

LaVine came up big down the stretch scoring Chicago's final 11 points. The 6'5" guard nailed three free throws after getting fouled by Butler to put the Bulls ahead to stay with just 18.4 seconds left to play. Karl-Anthony Towns and Butler then missed 3-pointers in the closing seconds to give Chicago the win.

Tonight's game is the second-half of a back-to-back set for Timberwolves as they took on the Houston Rockets last night in Texas. The Wolves are currently locked in a heated chase for playoff positioning, fending off not only the Oklahoma City Thunder (34-26), but also the Denver Nuggets (33-26) and the Portland Trail Blazers (33-26) in the division while chasing the San Antonio Spurs (35-25) for the third seed in the West.

Jimmy Butler left Friday's game in Houston with an injured right knee. Butler went down in the third quarter and had to be helped off the court in the Timberwolves' 120-102 loss.

An X-ray on the injured knee came back negative, according to Yahoo's Shams Charania.

Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game that Butler will have an MRI exam on Saturday.

As for the Bulls, they're coming off a heartbreaking 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday at the UC. The Sixers stormed out of the blocks fast, running out to an early 25-7 lead, but Bobby Portis came off the bench and quickly stopped the bleeding, leading Chicago on a 22-8 run to close the opening stanza and draw the Bulls to within four. Portis went on to lead all scorers with a career-high 38 points, shooting 15-of-26 (57.7%) from the field and 6-of-9 (66.7%) from distance. Zach LaVine notched 23 points and was just as lethal from far away, hitting 5-of-7 (71.4%) from downtown. Like Portis, David Nwaba also posted career-highs with 21 points and three 3-pointers while adding nine rebounds before fouling out.

Chicago tied a franchise-record with 18 3-pointers, with LaVine's final long toss giving the Bulls a five-point lead with 62 seconds left. However, Chicago couldn't score again as Philly managed to catch and pass them before the clocked ticked down to zero.

In order for the Bulls to pull-off a clean sweep of the season series against the Wolves they are going to have to get off to a fast start and stay focused and poised all night long. It's going to take a concerted effort from up-and-down the roster, as collectively, Chicago needs to hit the hardwood with a hard-nosed attitude.

The Bulls play their best when they establish a fast pace by aggressively pushing the ball up the floor and attack the rim early before the defense sets up. To be effective they also have to spread out offensively, placing shooters evenly all along the 3-point arc to force the defense to come out from under the basket. The must liberally share the ball - it has to freely jump from player-to-player, skipping from one side of the court to the other to put pressure on the defense. Every player should also constantly be on the move, darting in-and-out of the paint and all around the arc to help open up driving lanes to the hoop.

Defensively, the Bulls need to get physical and do whatever they can to close down the paint. The Wolves are not a strong perimeter team. They want to get into the paint and score at the rim. Minnesota ranks 29th in made (7.9) and attempted (22.2) 3-pointers, yet they are the 6th in overall scoring (109.7). They generate offense down low (6th/48.3 paint points per game) and at the free throw line (3rd/FTM 19.6 & 5th/FTA 24.4). They also rank 3rd in second-chance scoring (14.3).

To give themselves a shot of pulling off a second upset, Chicago needs major defensive contributions from each of its bigs to keep Towns in check as well as LaVine and Nwaba, who'll be tasked to keeping shooting guard Andrew Wiggins outside and away from the paint.

Players to watch:

Minnesota:

Karl-Anthony Towns is coming off his first All-Star appearance, tallying 17 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes. Towns scored a season-high 35 points February 13th vs. Houston; he's netted 30+ points seven times this season and is averaging 23.4 points while shooting 60.4% from the field in seven February starts. His final long-range miss against the Bulls on February 9th ended a personal and club-record run of 10 straight treys. Dating to last year, Towns is firing at a 42.9% clip (146-for-340) from downtown over his last 102 games.

Chicago:

Zach LaVine notched his sixth game with 20-plus points after posting 23 (including a season-high five triples) against the Sixers the other night. Over his last six starts LaVine is averaging 22.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 45.7% from behind the arc.

Bobby Portis has also caught fire in February. Portis' 38-point effort against Philadelphia extended a career-long streak of seven straight games of double-digit scoring. He's averaging 18.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 47.2% from the field and 39.4% from the arc during this seven-game stretch.

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