Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Thunder (10.28.17)

Tonight the Bulls are home to take on the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder, who visit the United Center for the only time this season.

The Thunder underwent quite a makeover during the offseason, as Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti was able to swing a pair of blockbuster trades that netted perennial All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony before the start of training camp. Adding those two superstars to run alongside last season’s league MVP, Russell Westbrook, has many believing the Thunder could make a serious run to the NBA Finals.

Offensively the Thunder like to play inside/out, meaning they will look to relentlessly drive the ball deep into the paint in an attempt to overpower opponents, while at the same time station a couple of shooters on the perimeter as safety valves in case the defense is able to clog the middle. OKC also does an excellent job of crashing the defensive boards and getting into a run-and-gun transition game. Thunder starting center Steven Adams takes no prisoners down low. The 7’0, 6th year Kiwi oftentimes ignites OKC’s fastbreak by clearing the boards and hitting Westbrook and/or George on the fly as they streak to the other end of the court. Chicago’s big men, namely center Robin Lopez, forward Lauri Markkanen and backup pivot Cristiano Felicio are going to need to match Adam’s energy and physicality on the glass in order to slow the Thunder down.

Westbrook is without a doubt one of the most exciting players in the game. Last season he became the first to average a triple-double (31.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds) since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson achieved the feat in 1962. So far this season Westbrook is putting up equally impressive numbers in averaging 21.5 points, 12.8 assists and 9.5 rebounds, while Anthony contributes 24.8 points and 4.0 rebounds with George adds 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals over 33 minutes a game.

In order to frustrate OKC’s imposing firepower Chicago’s team defense cannot afford mental breakdowns. Collectively the Bulls have to keep their poise whenever OKC turns up the heat while at the same time they can’t shy away from being physical.

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 Chicago’s offense to click, the ball must hop freely and not end up glued onto anyone’s hands for long stretches. Every player has to be active and fully engaged.

Without a doubt, the Bulls are going to need to spread out offensively in order to space the floor and continually eye opportunities to attack the rim in hopes of forcing OKC to scramble and foul. Chicago’s point guards, in particular Jerian Grant, Kay Felder and Kris Dunn (if he’s cleared to play), will need to stay on the attack, driving the ball deep into the paint in order to create their own version of mayhem.

In short, the Bulls task is to come out fast and play strong at both ends of the floor. At no time can they afford to slow down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Chicago needs to sport a nasty attitude, especially on the boards and in the paint. It would go a long way for the Bulls to win the battle of the boards — both offensive and defensive — as they cannot allow OKC, and in particular Westbrook, opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.