The Chicago Bulls trek to Beantown tonight looking to earn a season series split with the Celtics. Chicago posted its largest margin of victory in the opener, 108-85, on December 11th at the United Center. However Boston easily turned the tables in the next two get-togethers, thrashing the Bulls by 25 and 20 points, respectively.
Chicago enters riding a three-game winning streak, while Boston has dropped two in a row after having previously won six straight. The Cs sit comfortably as the 2nd seed in the East with a record of 53-25 entering tonight's game, trailing Toronto by three with four (counting tonight) games left to play.
Much like Chicago, Boston is having to make do without the help of some key players, in particular Gordon Hayward (broken leg/dislocated ankle), Kyrie Irving (left knee surgery) and Marcus Smart (right thumb surgery). Hayward hasn't played since the season opener, and although he's made strides of late in his recovery, Boston declared him out of action for the rest of this season and the upcoming playoffs. Irving, on the other hand, was initially due back by the start of the postseason, but news broke yesterday that he also won't be making a comeback until the start of next year. Smart, however, is still expected to rejoin the team sometime during the first round of the playoffs.
Heading into tonight, Irving had missed Boston's last 11 games, with Gang Green going 6-5 in his absence. Prior to undergoing surgery, Irving was having another outstanding season, averaging 24.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds while directing Boston to a 42-18 mark.
As for the Bulls, the injury bug seems to have established deep roots on the West Side of Chicago, as Zach LaVine (left patellar tendinitis), Kris Dunn (right toe sprain), Denzel Valentine (left knee surgery), Antonio Blakeney (left wrist fracture) and Paul Zipser (left foot sprain) are each sidelined.
An important element to achieving success for the Bulls' is the need to establish themselves as aggressors' right from the opening tip. Defensively, Chicago must take to the hardwood with a scrappy personality and be willing to go all out after every rebound and loose ball.
As a team, the Bulls need to crash the boards and wrestle control of the glass, particularly on the defensive end, as doing so often leads to a number of fastbreak and easy scoring opportunities.
Against the Cs, defensively Chicago must pay close attention to the 3-point arc, as they rank 11th in the league in attempts (2,378) and 7th in made treys (897). To put it another way, a whopping 33.2% of their points come from behind the 3-point arc — the fourth most in the NBA.
To that end, the Bulls can't hang their heads or allow their confidence to shrink if Boston gets off to a hot start. Simply put, Chicago has to be willing to dig deep and sport a never quit attitude, especially against such a talented and deep squad as the Celtics.
Offensively the Bulls need to keep turnovers in check while tirelessly pushing the ball up the floor. They must look to come out of the gates fast and strong, and look to exceed Boston's energy throughout the night.
When Chicago efficiently runs their offense, they play at a fast pace and take advantage of quick strike opportunities. Thus in order for them to exploit their speed and athleticism, the Bulls have to look to get out on the break and run at every opportunity. Attacking early not only speeds up the pace of the game, but it also denies opponents time to set up on defense and/or shut down the paint.
In order for the Bulls to compete they have to do a great job of sharing the ball, crisply swinging it from one side of the court to the other and from player to player. They need to station shooters evenly along the 3-point arc to open up the floor and force Boston's defense to abandon the paint. As soon as the Celtics focus their attention to defending the arc, Chicago's primary ballhandlers — Cameron Payne, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday and Sean Kilpatrick — will need to doggedly attack, driving the ball through the paint to force the defense into scramble-mode. If the Cs collectively slide down and/or attempt to trap or double-team, Chicago's attackers have to adjust by finding an open teammate hovering on the perimeter for an uncontested look at the hoop.
By and large, Chicago wants to attempt 85-to-90 shots, with 30-or-more coming from beyond the 3-point arc. In order to achieve those objectives the Bulls must play with pace. They have to take command the boards and look to get into transition. The most effective way to generate points is to unselfishly share the ball and force the defense to expend extra energy.
In summary, the Bulls principal task is to hit the floor running and never let up. Defensively they must show up with a hardnosed mentality, and commit to outhustling Boston from the opening tip until the final buzzer.