Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Thunder - Preseason (12.16.20)

The Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder tip-off this evening in the first of two preseason tilts at Chesapeake Energy Arena, located in the heart of the Sooner State. Bulls fans can catch the action live on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / 670 The Score) starting at 7:00 PM.

After tonight's contest, the Bulls and Thunder meet up again Friday to close out the preseason. Chicago opens the 2020-21 regular season back home at the United Center on Wednesday, December 23rd, against the Atlanta Hawks, also at 7:00 PM.

The Bulls hit the hardwood looking to build off an impressive 104-91 bounce back victory over the Houston Rockets Sunday night at the UC, squaring their preseason mark at 1-1.

In the preseason opener last Friday, Houston got off to a blistering 14-2 start in the opening three minutes and never looked back, controlling every aspect of the game, to thump the Bulls, 125-104.

However, Sunday night was a different story, as Chicago held their own against a very talented Rockets crew for the first three quarters of the game, and then closed out the night in style, outscoring Houston, 31-12, in the fourth quarter to win comfortably.

Chicago's backcourt duo of Coby White and Zach LaVine, combined for 43 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Rookie forward Patrick Williams also chipped in 13 points off the bench.

As a team, Chicago dished 26 assists on 37 made baskets. They also commandeered the boards, out rebounding the Rockets 57-47, and held Houston to just 34.5% shooting from the floor, including 25.5% from downtown.

What makes Sunday's victory notable is that Chicago played shorthanded, as eight players were unable to suit up due to either injury or NBA COVID-19 safety protocols. Of those eight, four are likely to end up being key rotational players going into the season. Seven of the eight didn't travel to OKC and will not play again tonight: Thaddeus Young (Left Lower Leg Infection), Denzel Valentine (Left Hamstring Strain), Garrett Temple (Self Isolation), Tomas Satoransky (NWT), Luke Kornet (NWT), Adam Mokoka (NWT) and Devin Dotson (NWT).

As for OKC, the Thunder opened its preseason on the road in San Antonio last Saturday night. New head coach, Mark Daigneault, certainly had to be pleased watching his young squad run out to a 20-point lead, then successfully weather a furious Spurs comeback to within a bucket in the fourth quarter, before turning the tide once again, running away with a 121-108 road win.

The Thunder offense found its rhythm right away, establishing a speedy and unselfish tempo by skipping the ball from player to player and side to side, finding a lot of clear looks at the hoop. The unselfish ball movement translated to a lethal 17-of-31 shooting clip from behind the arc.

Power forward, Mike Muscala, was a perfect 4-of-4 from the bend and led the team with 18 points.

Over the summer, the Thunder underwent a major transformation, as five-year head coach Billy Donovan decided to step down, and a few weeks later sign on to be the Bulls new head coach. Also, a series of trades brought in a batch of fresh faces, some veteran and others brand new to the league. Some of the new vets Bulls fans will certainly recognize include former NBA Champion Trevor Ariza, guard George Hill and five-time All-Star Al Horford. However, the top OKC player fans should focus most of their attention on is returning 6'6", 3rd year guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who started 70 games last season and led the team in scoring with an average of 19.0 points per game, along with 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

Chicago has brought back most of the same roster from last year. Key this season will be the continued growth and maturation of core players Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

Top draft pick, Patrick Williams, is also going to be an important player this year. Without a doubt, the 6'8" rookie from Florida State has already made quite a favorable impression on fans and teammates alike. The NBA game seems to slow down and come natural to him. But then again, Williams just turned 19-years old in August. So, he's sure to experience a few rough patches from time to time. The key for him, and the Bulls, will be how quickly he puts those moments in his rearview mirror and bounces back.

In order to come out on top this evening Chicago will need to come in focused and determined. They'll need to pay close attention to the 3-point arc by persistently running shooters off the line, while also shut down driving lanes through the paint to deny OKC easy scores at the rim. Another intensive Bulls effort on the glass, at both ends of the floor, will also go a long way to determining if Chicago will win this game.