Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Timberwolves (12.13.16)

Tonight the Bulls (13-10) welcome the Minnesota Timberwolves (6-18) to the United Center in the first of two meetings scheduled between the two teams this season. Tonight’s contest also marks the return of former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to Chicago.

Thibodeau spent five seasons stalking the sidelines for the Bulls before he and the team parted ways in May 2015. Now in his first season directing the Timberwolves squad, Thibodeau’s charges come into town 12 games under .500 and sporting a 3-9 record away from home. Currently they are also fighting to overcome a four-game losing streak.

Although the Timberwolves have had rough start to the season, they no doubt are one the NBA’s most exciting and interesting teams. Led by three 21-year old burgeoning stars in the likes of 6’11” power forward Karl Anthony-Towns (21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks), 6’8” small forward Andrew Wiggins (22.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists) and 6’5” shooting guard Zach LaVine (20.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists), chances are they will ultimately turn their fortune around and one of these days mature into legitimate NBA title contenders. However, history has also taught us that young teams often go through a growing up process, and that’s exactly what Minnesota is experiencing today, as so far this season they have lost eight games in which they’ve held a fourth-quarter lead.

Typically breakdowns have begun whenever Minnesota stops sharing the ball and one player attempts to take over a close game all by himself. The team’s lack of experience also shows up on the defensive end as communication often breaks down and court awareness get lost heading down the stretch of tight game. Too often a player loses sight of their man and/or a help defender fails to recognize the right moment when to slide over to stop someone from getting to the rim.

The Bulls come into tonight riding a wave of momentum after knocking off the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat in their last two games, both played at the United Center.

Chicago last played Saturday, thus this evening begins a stretch of three games in four nights, as the Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks will meet in a back-to-back, home-and-home two-game series beginning Thursday in Milwaukee.

A vital facet of tonight’s game for Chicago will be the Bulls’ eagerness to play a physical game, especially in the paint. The Bulls are 2nd in the league rebounding, pulling down an impressive average of 48.5 a game, whereas Minnesota is parked near the bottom of the pack, tied for 24th, corralling a rather pedestrian 42.4 rebounds a night.

However, Chicago’s big men are most likely in for a tough battle on the offensive glass this evening, as the T-Wolves, led by Towns and fellow 7’0” giant, Gorgui Deng, have proven their merit as solid offensive rebounders. The Bulls are the league leaders in this field with a mark of 13.4, but Minnesota isn’t far behind, sitting in the 5th spot at 11.9 per game.

Offensively, Chicago most definitely will have to push the ball up the floor and continually stay on the attack. The Bulls’ offense starts to sputter whenever they slow the pace and the ball stops moving and instead gets stuck in a player’s hands for too long.

Chicago began the season doggedly crashing the boards and instantly looking to get out on the break, keeping the ball on the move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Whenever the Bulls set an aggressive tone, opponents had a difficult time setting up defensively.

However, every now and then Chicago has begun to slip into the habit of slowing down and employing more of an isolation offensive set. Bad things tend to happen whenever this occurs.

All in all, the Bulls have done an excellent job of controlling the paint and persistently getting to the free throw line, as they have outscored opponents 473-304 at the charity stripe coming into tonight’s contest.

In particular, Chicago All-Star Jimmy Butler has developed into one of the NBA’s top two-way threats, averaging a team-leading and career-high 25.6 points per game, as well as almost two steals per night. The 6’7” sixth-year swingman was already considered one of the league’s best defenders before the start of this season, but now he’s widely acknowledged to be a Top 10 player at both ends of the floor.

One of Butler’s strengths has been his ability to dependably get to the free throw line. He takes the court tonight ranked first in the NBA in free throws made per game (8.9), and fourth in free throws attempted (10.0). Butler is also one of three players in the league who has hit at least 25 3-pointers and 200 free throws. He also posted a remarkable 15-game streak of scoring 20 or more points, which so far this season is the best anyone in the league has achieved.

To sum up, in what is sure to be an emotional game for both the Bulls and the Timberwolves, Chicago is going to have to dig deep in hitting the hardwood aggressively from the opening tip and not ever ease off the gas. Defensively, they will have to play an inspired game and quickly shut down any open paths to the basket, especially whenever Wiggins and LaVine have the ball in their hands.

The Timberwolves are a highly explosive and athletic team that maxes out whenever they are given the opportunity to play fast and loose. The Bulls are going to have to do a tremendous job of communicating and never losing sight of the ball. Chicago has to establish a hardnosed tone right away and stick with it throughout the night in order to stay on track.