Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Thunder (03.16.21)

The Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder meet up for the second and final time this season tonight at the United Center. OKC came away with a 127-125 overtime win the first time these two met in mid-January in Tornado Alley. Thunder playmaker Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led Oklahoma City with 33 points, while All-Star Zach LaVine paced Chicago with 35.

Chicago got off to a fast start, leading 68-50 at the half and extending their edge to 22 points (78-56) partway through the third quarter before going cold while the Thunder went on a 13-0 run to get back in the game. OKC forward Lu Dort ignited, scoring 13 points in a span of 2:33 to trim the deficit, and eventually help the Thunder draw within two-points before Chicago calmed the waters, heading into the fourth quarter with a 95-87 advantage.

That's when Gilgeous-Alexander went off for a dozen points to help force overtime. OKC continued rolling in the extra period, jumping out to a 126-122 lead with 6.1 seconds left to go, but LaVine knocked down a contested trey to pull the Bulls within one. Veteran Thunder guard, George Hill, was quickly fouled with 5.2 seconds remaining and proceeded to hit one of two free throws to close the scoring for the night. Although LaVine was able to launch another contested three before the buzzer, but this time his shot failed to go down, allowing OKC to steal the win.

Both the Bulls and Thunder come into tonight on high notes, as OKC knocked off Memphis, 128-122, Sunday, while the Bulls blew out Toronto, 118-95, that same night. Gilgeous-Alexander, who missed OKC's previous game (a 119-97 loss to the Knicks on Saturday) with a left quad contusion, went 8 for 17 from the field against the Grizzlies to lead the Thunder with 30 points. Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski also had a big game notching a career-high 23 points, as OKC had seven players score in double figures and shot a season-high 57.5% from the floor, including 16 of 31 from 3-point range. The 19-year-old Pokusevski, who made five 3-pointers, became the second-youngest player in NBA history to make five-or-more 3s in a single game. The 7-footer also grabbed 10 rebounds in his third game since he was recalled from a G League assignment with the Oklahoma City Blue.

As for the Bulls, rookie Patrick Williams delivered a career-best 23 points to lead them past the Toronto Raptors Sunday night. Zach LaVine also scored 15 to help Chicago end a two-game slide. Coby White had 13 points and Wendell Carter Jr. added 12 more and 11 rebounds after the two were removed from the starting five for the first time this season.

Chicago maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half and enjoyed a nice cushion after Denzel Valentine made three 3-pointers during a 9-0 run that pushed the lead to 96-78 with eight minutes left. Toronto, which had won 12 straight over Chicago, never got closer than 11 points the rest of the night.

A total of nine Bulls scored in double figures, as Chicago recorded 35 assists on 44 made baskets, and turned the ball over just 12 times. The Bulls also dominated the glass to the tune of 60-37 and outscored the Raptors 50-38 in the paint and 31-11 in transition.

Chicago's winning recipe is to continue down the exact same path they traveled against Toronto.

Defensively, the Bulls have done a good job of controlling the 3-point arc this season. Chicago ranks 3rd in the league in holding opponents to 34.7% shooting from deep, as well as a third-best 11.5 made threes a game. However, despite the outstanding effort against the Raptors Sunday night, they rank 27th in defending the paint, allowing 50.4 points a game, and are slightly better than middle of the pack (No. 12) in allowing 16.3 points off turnovers.

Thus, in order to taste success more often than not, Chicago must collectively refuse to grant so many free passages to the hoop and opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

A central goal every game for the Bulls is to be aggressive and get off to fast starts and maintain that pace the rest of the night.

When the Bulls play physical, and consistently look to attack the rim at both ends of the floor, good things generally happen.

For Chicago's offense to tick, the ball must freely skip from player-to-player. Quick, decisive passing forces defenses to scramble, overreact, breakdown and commit fouls. Smart, swift passes help free up driving lanes to the rim, and generate trips to the charity stripe, as well as grant free looks for shooters stationed around the 3-point arc.

The most important thing the Bulls cannot allow is for their offense to slow down or permit one player to try to take on the defense by himself. Continuous movement, in and out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc, is crucial to creating an efficient and productive offensive rhythm.

To come out on top again tonight, Chicago also has to take care of the ball while defensively shut down the paint. They cannot allow Gilgeous-Alexander freedom to run about. Collectively, the Bulls will also have to hit the boards hard in order to limit second-chance scoring opportunities for OKC.

If the Bulls stampede out of the gate right from the start and continue to play unselfishly by sharing the ball and making sure everyone gets involved in the action, they should be able to continue building confidence as they head down a very busy stretch in which they play five games in seven days, including a back-to-back tomorrow night against the San Antonio Spurs back here at the UC.