Tonight the Bulls return to the United Center to begin a three-game homestand by meeting for the first time the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC rolls into town blistering hot having gone 16-3 over their last 19 games. During this timeframe, the Thunder own the league’s highest net rating (+10.9), defensive rating (99.5), steals per game (10.6) average and points scored off opponents turnovers (21.5). Swingman Paul George has also grabbed the second-most steals (38) and has established the third-best +/- rating in the league (+12.4) while starting center Steven Adams holds the best +/- rating (+13.3) and shooting mark (61.4%) on the team, averaging a double-double (14.9 points and 10.1 rebounds) on the year.
Against the Brooklyn Nets in Flatbush Wednesday evening OKC fell behind by as many as 23 late in the third quarter when George suddenly found the Midas touch and could no longer miss from the field. The five-time All-Star recorded 25 points in the final stanza, and 47 for the game to go along with 15 rebounds to lead the Thunder to an exciting 114-112 comeback victory. Teammate Russell Westbrook, who captured the league’s MVP award in 2017, also logged his 108th-career triple-double that night with 21 points, 17 assists and 15 rebounds. It was the Thunder’s fifth straight win on the road.
For the Bulls, tonight marks the home debut of new head coach Jim Boylen, who took the reins earlier this week after the dismissal of Fred Hoiberg. Where Hoiberg’s plan was to run and establish a breakneck pace from the opening tip, Boylen says he would like to slow things down, running only when possible and when fastbreak opportunities fail to materialize, set-up in the halfcourt and work the shot-clock down all the while searching for defensive cracks to exploit.
A favorable matchup for Chicago will likely emerge down low in the post this evening where OKC’s undersized power forward (Jerami Grant: 6’9”, 220) will have to contend with Lauri Markkanen (7’0”, 240). In just his second game of the season Tuesday in Indiana, Markkanen posted a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds. The second-year Finn wreaks most of his damage from behind the arc, but he’s also adept at taking advantage of smaller defenders down low. Thus it’s going to be important for Chicago’s playmaking guards to recognize when Markkanen has isolated and established a dominate position near the basket and get him the ball so he can take advantage of the mismatch.
A steady pace that’s not too fast nor too slow should also prove valuable for Chicago. The aforementioned Westbrook, George, Grant along with OKC guards Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder thrive in the open court. It would be a mistake for the Bulls to try to outrun them. Instead, a balanced attack in which they make OKC expend extra energy by fighting through a series of solid picks to keep up with continuous moving offensive players will be key in assuming control of the game.
Offensively Chicago will have to get and keep all five players involved in the action. The Bulls simply cannot afford to allow their attack to end up being a series of ball-stopping one-on-one battles. The ball has to jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force OKC to burn energy. As mentioned above, the Thunder lead the league in points off turnovers, thus the Bulls have to be wise with the ball and not look to thread too many needles with tight, contested passes that can get picked off and ignite a fast-paced Thunder offense.
Westbrook is virtually unstoppable in the open court and also if given a free pass to drive through the paint. Defensively the Bulls have to do whatever is legally allowed under the law to keep him from the basket. Forcing Westbrook to stay outside and launch three-pointers would be the best course of action as he’s connecting on just 22.4 percent of his long tosses so far this season.
In short, Chicago needs to hit the hardwood in aggressive fashion in every way and stay dogged throughout the night. Every player that steps onto the floor must provide energy and place their mark on the game. In order for the Bulls to succeed they have to play with an edge and leave everything they have out on the court.