Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Celtics (02.16.17)

The Chicago Bulls (27-29) host the Boston Celtics (36-19) in the NBA’s final game before the league goes on its annual week-long All-Star break. The Bulls and Celtics have already played each other twice this season, with each team winning on its home floor. The Bulls knocked off the Cs on Opening Night back on October 27th, 105-97. Jimmy Butler paced Chicago with 24 points, hitting 4-of-6 from the 3-point arc. The Bulls also dominated the boards, outrebounding Boston, 55-36, including 18-3 on the offensive glass.

The Celtics exacted sweet revenge a week later in Beantown, 107-100. All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas and forward Amir Johnson led Gang Green with 23 points apiece. In fact, Johnson enjoyed a career night, going 4-for-4 from distance and putting 16 points on the board all by himself in the third quarter. Johnson also chipped in six rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks on the night. As a team, Boston connected on 14 3-pointers, while Chicago was only able to knock-down seven.

The Celtics arrive this evening off a 116-108 victory over Philadelphia last night in Boston. The Cs have now won four in a row and 11 of their last 12. Their hot streak has them zeroing in on Cleveland for the top seed in the East, as they sit just 2.5 games back of the Cavs in the overall conference standings.

Boston’s primary sparkplug is the aforementioned Isaiah Thomas, a 5’9” gutsy, charismatic, energizer bunny scoring machine, who after setting the twine on fire last night for 33 points against the 76ers, has strung together 40 straight games of 20-or-more points scored, tying an all-time team record established during the 1971-72 season by Celtics great, John Havlicek. As amazing as a 40-game streak is, what’s equally impressive is the fact that Thomas has failed to score 20 points just one time this season — November 18th against Golden State — when he could only muster 18!

The Bulls, on the other hand have endured a pretty rough stretch of late, however they were able to break a three-game losing streak in defeating Toronto, 105-94, at the United Center Tuesday. That Valentine’s Day victory was Chicago’s 11th straight over the Raptors. Jimmy Butler, who has been battling a painful heel injury over the last 10 days, led the way with 19 points and 12 assists.

Tuesday’s triumph was a direct result of the Bulls playing with a great deal of energy and focus throughout the entire game. When Chicago has stepped up its drive this season, especially defensively, they are a tough matchup. The proof is in the pudding, as the Bulls come in 17-4 when they hold opponents to under 100 points, 23-9 when they score 100+ points, 15-8 when they outscore the opponent in transition, 14-4 when they record more assists, 22-16 when they win the battle of the boards, 13-7 when they control the paint, and 16-2 when they shoot a higher percentage overall.  

Chicago’s primary formula for success has always consisted of taking the floor with a hardnosed approach and demonstrating a will to out-hustle the opposition in every conceivable way. Tonight will be no exception as their defensive strategy will need to center on shutting down paths to the basket, especially with regards to Thomas, who can score from anywhere on the floor, but primarily loves to attack the rim. Chicago’s team defense will need to be aggressive while also stay tied together. The Bulls simply cannot allow Boston easy opportunities to put points on the board.

Offensively, both Chicago and Boston are at their best when they play unselfishly, crisply and equally sharing the ball from player-to-player and side-to-side. The Bulls, especially, can’t afford to fall into a trap of playing a one-on-one game.

Both teams are coming in a bit banged up. Chicago has played without rookie Paul Zipser (badly sprained ankle), forward Niko Mirotic (back spasms) and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade (wrist contusion) for the last three games, while guard Avery Bradley (right Achilles) and rookie forward Jaylen Brown (right hip strain) have also missed time of late. Mirotic and Wade could both be back in action this evening, but Boston has unequivocally declared Bradley and Brown as out.

A fun and somewhat odd side note to this evening’s game is that Chicago has won 16 straight home games televised nationally on TNT. Now, if you can’t make it to the United Center tonight, you can catch Marv Albert and Kevin McHale calling the game — you guessed it — on TNT at 7pm (CT).

—   Anthony Hyde