This evening the Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder close the book on their season series. OKC came away with a win the first time the two teams got together down in the Sooner state, 109-106, on December 16th.
Chicago stormed out of the gates fast, stampeding to a commanding 37-16 lead after one, and held a 68-49 edge at the half. The Bulls shot a blistering 58% from the field during the first 24 minutes, and defensively, converted 12 Thunder turnovers into 26 points.
Future Hall of Fame floor general, Chris Paul, had a rough start for the Thunder, posting only a single bucket by halftime, however he turned the game on its head in the back half, especially down the stretch. The veteran point guard went 5-of-5 from downtown and posted 19 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth in directing a furious Thunder rally to claim the victory.
Paul's fourth 3-pointer late in the game put OKC ahead 101-100, the Thunder's first lead since the opening moments. By the time the final horn sounded, Paul was just one rebound shy of a triple double, ending with 30 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists. Zach LaVine, who shot 15-of-25 (60%) from the field, led Chicago with a game-high 39 points.
As for tonight, an interesting note to keep an eye on will be if Coby White can continue torching the twine. The 6'5 rookie guard from North Carolina put his name next to another famous Tar Heel in the Chicago record book the other day, the one and only Michael Jordan, by scoring 33 points in consecutive games against the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. Jordan and White are now the only rookies in Bulls franchise history to accomplish such a feat. What's more impressive when it comes to White is, unlike Jordan, he did off the bench. In fact, Coby White is the first NBA rookie in history to score 30-plus points in consecutive games off the bench since the league began keeping track of such things at the start of the 1970-71 season.
Another interesting facet to keep an eye will be LaVine is shoots from behind the arc. Against Washington LaVine knocked down six long balls to raise his season total to 177 3-pointers on the season, establishing a new franchise single-season record, breaking Ben Gordon's mark of 173 set in 2009.
On Sunday, LaVine also extended an impressive personal streak with three steals, giving his 11 straight games of at least one or more thefts.
As for the Thunder, they come to town looking to earn a ninth-straight road win for the first time in their history. Since the start of December, they've gone 15-3 away from home, which is the best road record in the league during that span.
A big reason for their success has been the outstanding play of their bench mob, as OKC's reserves have outscored opposing benches in 42 of 57 games.
On Sunday at home, OKC blew away the San Antonio Spurs, 131-103, to post their 35th win on the season. Down nine halfway through the second quarter, the Thunder eventually found its groove, stringing together 16 unanswered points to go up 52-45, and never looked back. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the way with 22 points while big man Steven Adams scored 21 while pulling down 14 rebounds. Paul put together a double-double of 12 points while dishing 10 assists.
For Chicago to come out on top they'll have to deliver a blue-collar effort in every phase of the game.
Despite usually getting off to fast starts the Bulls have hard time sustaining momentum this season, especially early in the second half. So not only will they need another explosive beginning tonight, they're going to have to keep the energy pumping for all 48 minutes.
Therefore, it's vital the Bulls play unselfishly, freely sharing the ball, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side, while constantly looking for ways to exploit opportunities to attack the rim. All five players on the floor must always get and stay involved in the action.
Defensively, Chicago must generate a rugged tenor and keep that attitude on edge throughout the night. Entering the game, the Bulls lead the league in forcing opponent turnovers (18.2) and scoring off those turnovers (21.1 per game). So far this season Chicago has been able to coerce 20-or-more turnovers 19 times, the most in the league. Thus to succeed tonight, the Bulls need to constantly pressure the ball and smartly recognize when the time is right to jump passing lanes and double-team, disrupting OKC's rhythm from start to finish.