Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Thunder (01.09.17)

Bulls TV analyst Stacey King often proclaims “Big-time players make big-time plays!” whenever something exciting occurs during crunch time of a tight game. Well tonight fans will get the opportunity to witness a couple of “Big-Time” players head-to-head as Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder (22-16) make their only United Center appearance to take on Jimmy Butler and the Chicago Bulls (19-18) on a cold, blustery January night in the Windy City. 

Through OKC’s first 38 games, Westbrook, who stands 6’3” and checks in at 200-pounds of pure indestructible granite, is averaging 31.4 points (1st in the NBA), 10.6 rebounds (11th) and 10.3 assists (2nd). In reaching these benchmarks the nine-year superstar guard out of UCLA is now the second player in NBA history (Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was the first) to average 30+ points, 10+ rebounds and 10+ assists through the first 30+ games of a season. If that doesn’t knock your socks off, how about this? Westbrook has already posted 17 triple-doubles this year (with the rest of the league having produced a combined 26), to which the Thunder’s record stands at 14-3. Career-wise, Westbrook has posted a whopping 53 triple-doubles, which is the most among active players and stands 6th all-time in league annuals. Dating back to last season, OKC’s record is 32-3 whenever Westbrook posts a triple-double (Yes, that’s right — Westbrook had 18 triple-doubles all of last season, and now has posted 17 in almost half the games played.).

Chicago’s Jimmy Butler has been pretty impressive himself this season, and especially so of late. The 6th year swingman out of Marquette capped off an impressive 3-0 Bulls week with 42 points Saturday, including scoring 32 in the second half and overtime, to lead Chicago to an exciting comeback win over Toronto, 123-118. It was Chicago’s first overtime game of the season and Butler did just about anything he wanted during the second half and OT. Although he shot 10-of-25 from the field overall, he went 4-of-8 from distance and 18-of-20 from the charity stripe. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out 5 assists and stole the ball 3 times for good measure.

For the just concluded week, which incorporated not only the Toronto victory, but wins over the defending NBA champion Cavaliers in Cleveland and the likely playoff-bound Charlotte Hornets, Butler averaged 38 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

So far this season Chicago, as a team, has frequently achieved success when they charge out of the blocks and play fast and angry right from the start. Therefore, in order to come out on top tonight against one of the best teams in the league, the Bulls will once again have to hit the hardwood with a gritty mindset and be ready to run from the opening tip.

Another key factor as to whether or not the Bulls will have a good night is how they do on the boards. Currently Chicago leads the league in rebounding with an average of 47.8 per game, but OKC is close behind, ranking 4th with a mark of 45.7. The Bulls are also No. 1 on the offensive glass averaging 13.8 per game. However, the Thunder again are not far behind with a mark of 11.2.

A benefit of being a strong rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that your squad is able to score easy baskets on put-backs. The Bulls, in particular, have taken advantage of this as they enter tonight leading the NBA in second-chance scoring (16.4 points per game). The cold-hard truth is Chicago is not a particularly good perimeter shooting team. Thus their being able to cash easy scoring opportunities on put-backs has helped them win a number of games, as the Bulls have gone 17-10 whenever they outrebound an opponent, and 16-11 when they outscore them on second-chances. Likewise, OKC has gone 16-9 when they outright win the battle of the boards, but on the other hand, they are just 6-7 when they tie or don’t capture the glass.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their most effective when they aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For them to click, the ball has to hop freely and not end up glued onto anyone’s hands for long stretches. Every player has to be active and fully engaged as to what’s going on.

Without a doubt, Chicago is going to need to spread out in order to space the floor while also eyeing opportunities to attack the rim in hopes of forcing OKC to scramble and foul. As a team, the Bulls have been nothing short of brilliant at making their way to the free throw line, as they’ve outscored opponents 729-545 at the charity stripe. To break it down further, the Bulls have tossed 20 or more charity lobs 21 times this season which is the most in the league. In fact Saturday against Toronto, Chicago shot 36-of-39 (92.3%) from the foul line. It was the fourth time in franchise history the Bulls connected on 36+ free throws in a game.

Butler, in particular, has done an incredible job of drawing fouls and getting to the line this year. Not only is he averaging a career-best 25.6 points, but he is 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.4), and tied for third in free-throw attempts (9.5) per game, while converting a career-best 88.1% from the line. Butler is also one of only three in the NBA (along with Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden) to make at least 40 three-pointers (Butler has 46 coming into tonight) and 300+ made free throws (319).

In short, the Bulls task is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and at no time slow down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Chicago has to sport a nasty attitude and be tenacious. They have to capture the boards — both offensive and defensive —and they cannot allow OKC, and in particular, Westbrook, whom many believe is the favorite to be the NBA MVP this season, opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

Some interesting tidbits to keep in the back of your mind while watching tonight’s game:

      For the Thunder —

  • In victory, OKC is outscoring the opposition by a +10.5 points (110.7/100.2).
  • OKC is 17-10 whenever they score more fastbreak points, but are 5-6 when they don’t.
  • When OKC shoots 50% or better from the field, they are 10-1, but when they hit under 50%, they’re 12-15.
  • When OKC dishes more assists than the opposition, they are 14-3, but when the opposition produces more, they are 6-13.
  • When OKC’s bench outscores the opponent, they’re 13-5, but when the shoe is on the other foot, they’re 9-11.
  • And when Russell Westbrook dishes 10+ assists, they are 17-5.

      For the Bulls —

  • In victory, Chicago is outscoring the opposition by +12.3 points (107.4/95.1).
  • Chicago is 11-4 when they post more fastbreak points.
  • Chicago is 15-8 whenever they score 100+ points.
  • Chicago is 13-3 when they hold their opponent to under 100 points, but 6-16 when they don’t.
  • Chicago is 10-2 when they record more assists.
  • And when Jimmy Butler scores 20+ points, the Bulls are 15-15.

 To sum up, the Bulls are on a nice roll having won three in a row. To keep the good vibes flowing they simply can’t afford to let-up in any way, shape or form.

—    Anthony Hyde