Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Celtics (01.25.21)

The Chicago Bulls (7-9) are back in action at the United Center this evening to take on the Boston Celtics (9-6) for the first time. The two were supposed to meet earlier this month, also at the UC, but the NBA ended up postponing the game when Boston didn't have enough players available under the league's strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The game will be rescheduled later this season.

Chicago hits the floor looking to bounce back after the Los Angeles Lakers snapped their three-game winning streak with a 101-90 victory, Saturday night. Chicago got off to a horrendous start, mustering only 33 first-half points and trailed by 30 at the break. The Bulls had averaged 121.7 points during their three-game winning streak, but the Lakers stifling defense held them to just 39.3% shooting from the field and forced 19 turnovers.

Zach LaVine, as usual, led Chicago in scoring with 21 points, but he shot 9-for-23 from the field. LaVine comes into this evening leading the Bulls in scoring at 26.8 points per game, good for 9th overall in the league.

The Celtics are close to getting back to full health. This past week, they welcomed Kemba Walker to the lineup after being sidelined for the start of the season with a knee injury. Yesterday the Celtics jumped out to a commanding 22-point halftime lead and cruised the rest of the way in blasting Cleveland, 141-103. Forward, Jaylen Brown, led the way with 33 points in only three periods of work, while Walker pitched in 21. Celtics guard Marcus Smart also dished nine assists to go along with 12 points.

Boston Head Coach Brad Stevens announced afterwards that Walker will not play against the Bulls as he wants to ease him slowly back into the fold, and for the moment avoid having Walker play on back-to-back dates.

However, another big-time player for the Celtics, who has been on the shelf of late, looks to be back in action tonight – Jayson Tatum. The All-Star forward and former Duke All-American has missed the last five games due to COVID-19 protocols. In the 10 games Tatum has played this season he sits directly in front of LaVine in scoring, averaging 26.9 per outing. Tatum's running mate in the frontcourt, Jaylen Brown, is also enjoying a terrific season, ranking 6th in the league in scoring with an average of 27.3 per game. So clearly, Chicago's defense will once again have their hands full this evening.

As for the other side of the ball, despite the Lakers loss, the Bulls continue to be one of the NBA's most lethal offensive threats, averaging 116.1 points (5th) on 47.5% (8th) shooting from the floor, and 38.0% (7th) from beyond the arc, as well as 80.2% (6th) from the charity stripe. Besides LaVine's ability to light up the scoreboard, Lauri Markkanen is putting up 18.6 points and pulling down 6.6 rebounds, while second-year guard Coby White is next in line at 15.9 points and leads the team in assists at 5.9 per game.

Defensively, however, Chicago must continue working to tighten things up, as they sit 28th in the league guarding the hoop, allowing opponents 118.2 points on 47.8% (27th) shooting from the field.

For the Bulls to succeed offensively, they must continue to freely share the ball, and make sure everyone stays involved in the action, for that will force opponents to burn energy playing defense. Swift passing helps to free up driving lanes to the basket and also generate wide open looks around the 3-point arc. If a team is able to create enough of those, more often than not they should be able to knock down shots and keep pressuring opponents to answer. So far this season the Bulls have had four games of 30 or more assists and have shot better than 50% on seven occasions following this recipe.

Another major aspect in being successful for the Bulls is to always play fast, while keeping turnovers to a reasonable number. Chicago can't afford to slow the pace of the game, and play isolation ball, going one-on-five. Constant player and ball movement, running and cutting in-and-out of the paint and towards the hoop, helps to create a free-flowing rhythm and force opponents to scramble defensively.

A primary key every game is to communicate and trust one another at both ends of the floor. Chicago is very capable of defeating any team on any given night if they deliver a gritty effort, especially when they crash the boards and take command of the paint.

Tatum and Brown are one of the league's top 1-2 punches. Both can burn up the nets from outside and rattle the rim if allowed to drive the lane. Collectively, though, Chicago can shut them down by hustling back on defense, recognizing when to rotate and double-team with a blitz every now and then to disrupt their tempo.

Once again, as of this writing, it looks as if the Bulls will be without regular starting center, Wendell Carter Jr., who is nursing a quadriceps strain. If Carter Jr. misses tonight, it'll be his third straight game in street clothes. Most likely Bulls Head Coach Billy Donovan will, at times, play Markkanen at center and tap veteran forwards Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr. to carry more load than normal down low.

If the Bulls can stay focused and poised, keeping turnovers in check, and collectively command the boards, as well as doggedly go after every loose ball and collect a little more than their fair share of long rebounds, they'll have the opportunity to get back on the winning track by the end of the night.