Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Celtics (04.19.21)

After a three game homestand, the Chicago Bulls are back on the road for a pair of games, starting tonight in Boston where they will take on the NBA's hottest team, the Boston Celtics for the second of three times this year.

Gang Green comes into tonight winners of its last six games, while Chicago takes the hardwood looking to start of streak of its own after knocking off Cleveland back home at the United Center in their last tilt Saturday night, 106-96.

The victory over the Cavs snapped a five-game losing streak for the Bulls. Nikola Vučević paced Chicago with 25 points. It was the 42nd time this season Vučević posted at least 20 points, second among centers behind Denver's Nikola Jokić. It was also Vučević's 28th game with at least 10 made field goals, which places him third in the NBA.

The 6'11" center acquired at the trade deadline from the Orlando Magic, knocked down three 3-pointers against the Cavs, giving him four-straight games with at least three treys, his longest streak of the season.

As a facilitator, Vučević also dished out five assists, giving him back-to-back games with at least five helpers. He also registered a pair of steals. Coby White also effectively doled out the ball in handing out nine assists against Cleveland. It was White's third-highest output of the season.

Bulls rookie Patrick Williams continued his aggressive play of late. As a passer, Williams dished three assists, one off of his career best. It was also his third time this season reaching three assists while having zero turnovers. And as a scorer, Williams posted 12 points, reaching double figures for the first time since April 8th against Toronto.

Bulls fans can catch tonight's game on TV on NBC Sports Chicago or on radio at WSCR-AM 670. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT.

As mentioned earlier, the Cs are enjoying their best stretch of the season having won six in a row before tonight's tip-off. Among this streak are wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and most recently, the Golden State Warriors.

In their last outing against Golden State over the weekend, Boston's Jayson Tatum and the Dubs' Steph Curry put on a heck of a show. Tatum dropped 44 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds while Curry scorched the nets for 47, as Boston prevailed, 119-114. What makes this victory even more impressive is the fact the Celtics were without the services of All-Star guard Jaylen Brown who stayed in bed battling a flu bug (non-Covid). As of this writing, Brown's availability for tonight has been listed as questionable by the Cs. The same goes for high-powered point guard, Kemba Walker, who did play against Golden State despite feeling a little under the weather. The veteran sparkplug added 26 points and eight rebounds, while Walker's backcourt mate, Marcus Smart, chimed in with 16 points, nine rebounds and six helpers of his own.

One Celtic we know won't take the floor tonight is recent addition Evan Fournier, who has been sidelined due to the league's health and safety protocols, similar to the Bulls' All-Star Zach LaVine, who won't play for at least the next couple of weeks.

Chicago's primary task this evening will be to tighten up defensively near the basket, as so far, the Bulls have been one of the NBA's weakest guardians of the paint. Chicago's opponents this year have averaged a whopping 50.1 points a game down low. Against Cleveland the other night, the Bulls held the Cavs to 42 points in the paint, however despite winning the game, the Bulls countered with 38 paint points. For Chicago to consistently end up on the right side of the ledger going forward the team must do a better job of communicating and helping each other when it comes to closing down paths to the hoop.

As a unified force, Chicago must always come to work in a spirited mood, never shying from playing a physical game. They especially need to deliver a clear message that if someone looks to attack the rim against their defense, that person is going to end up on the floor with a new bruise or two.

Also, as a team, the Bulls need to aggressively take command of the boards at both ends of the floor, forcing opponents to operate away from the hoop, denying them extra opportunities to score in transition as well as post easy put-backs of missed shots.

On offense, the Bulls must play unselfishly, passing the ball from player-to-player and skipping it from side-to-side. Relentless ball and player movement places pressure on the defense to react, and oftentimes scramble and breakdown. Free-flowing ball movement also makes it easier for the offense to attack the basket and finish at the rim with high percentage shots. It also keeps everyone active in the action and flow of the game.

Vučević's addition has forced the Bulls to adjust their offensive scheme, getting the ball into his hands under the basket early and often at the start of games, instead of generally relying on quick passing in search of an open perimeter shot.

Vučević is one of the NBA's best and most efficient scorers. Besides owning a soft touch near the rim, he's also adept of stepping out behind the three-point arc and effortlessly knocking down shots. He's currently shooting 41.7% from behind the arc, placing him in the top 15 in the league.

Vučević's skillset makes it difficult for opposing centers to stay anchored under the basket to protect the rim. Once he steps away and hits a shot or two from deep, his defender must abandon the paint and come outside to guard him. That makes it a lot easier for Chicago's ballhandlers to find teammates cutting to the hoop for layups and easy scores.

All in all, the Bulls have played very unselfishly. After handing out 34 assists against Memphis on Friday, they dished 30 against the Cavs on Saturday. It was the second time this season Chicago totaled 30+ helpers back-to-back, and the 14th time they achieved 30+ on the year. The team currently averages 26.6 assists, good for 8th in the league.

Another positive sign for Chicago has been the team's competence from behind the bend. For the third-straight game, Chicago has hit at least 13 3-pointers after making 16 against Cleveland the other night. This has happened three times this year. In fact, the Bulls have reached double-digit 3-pointers in seven of their last eight games and have shot at least 38.0% from distance in each of those seven. The Bulls come into tonight averaging 12.4 made 3-pointers, the most in franchise history. To beat a hot Celtics squad tonight, it's clear the Bulls are going to need more of the same marksmanship from distance as well as a willingness to continue sharing the ball amongst all five players on the floor.

In summary, for Chicago to succeed they have to be aggressive and keep that mindset alive throughout the entire game. Habitually, the Bulls have to outhustle and outwork their opponents. They need to fight through screens, go after every rebound and eagerly dive after every loose ball.

If the Bulls come in focused and keep their poise when the opponent attempts to turn up the pressure, they'll always have a fighting chance to end up as the last team standing.