Keys to the Game: Bulls at Thunder (12.17.18)

Tonight the Bulls close out a three-game road trip with a stop in Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Both the Bulls and Thunder come in feeling good about themselves after winning this past Saturday night. Chicago posted a 98-93 come-from-behind victory at San Antonio, while OKC took down the LA Clippers, 110-104, here in Tornado Alley.

Against the Spurs, it was Kris Dunn who led the way for the Bulls with 24 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. Dunn's stellar play, especially down the stretch when he hit a floater with 38.8 seconds, a jumper with 8.3 seconds and sealed the victory with a pair of cold-blooded free throws with three seconds left on the clock, snapped three-game losing streak.

At one point Chicago trailed by as many as 21-points in the opening half, but the Bulls, who were forced to play without leading scorer Zach LaVine due to a left ankle injury, buckled down defensively while aggressively attacking at the other end of the floor to outscore San Antonio 55-31 in the second half to steal the win. It was the first time this season Chicago held an opponent to under 40 points in a single half. And on another positive note, the Bulls committed only seven turnovers, a new season-low.

As for the Thunder, Paul George shot 11-of-19 from the field, 5-of-9 from behind the arc and 6-of-8 from the free throw line to post a game-high 33 points in leading OKC over the Clippers. Former MVP Russell Westbrook also had a terrific night, logging a double-double of 13 points and 12 assists to go along with nine rebounds and six steals.

On the whole, OKC's suffocating team defense forced 26 turnovers, sparking the Thunder to a 20-10 advantage in fastbreak scoring and a 54-30 edge in points scored in the paint.

After starting the season off on the wrong foot by losing their first four games, OKC has gone 18-6 since. During this time frame, they've posted the league's highest net rating (+8.2), defensive rating (101.2), steals per game (10.8) and points off opponents turnovers (21.7) averages.

The last time the Bulls and Thunder met was 10 days ago at the United Center with Chicago escaping with a 114-112 victory in new head coach Jim Boylen's home debut. The Bulls were hot from the get-go, posting 70 points by halftime. Overall they ended up shooting 52.4 percent from the field and were led in scoring by LaVine (25), Lauri Markkanen (24) and Justin Holiday (20). Westbrook picked-up his second-straight triple-double (24 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists) to lead the Thunder.

For the Bulls to sweep the season series this evening against the Thunder they'll likely need another strong game from Dunn, as well as Justin Holiday, who had a night to forget Saturday, shooting 1-of-12 from the field overall (1-of-10 from the arc) versus the Spurs. Against the Thunder 10 days ago at the UC, the veteran swingman connected on 4-of-6 treys on his way to putting 20 up on the board for the Bulls. It would certainly help a lot if Holiday could deliver another game like that this evening.

A favorable matchup for the Bulls should emerge against OKC's undersized power forward Jerami Grant (6'9”, 220), who will be asked to contend with Lauri Markkanen (7'0”, 240). Chicago's second-year Finnish sensation can wreak havoc from near and far. Thus it wouldn't be a bad idea for Dunn to find his tall teammate posting Grant up under the basket more than a few times tonight, as well as discover Markkanen hovering behind the arc if Grant attempts to cheat defensively by leaving him alone at the bend as he sinks into the paint to help double-team the ball.

A controlled pace that's not overly fast nor too slow should also prove beneficial for the Bulls. The aforementioned Westbrook, George, Grant along with OKC guards Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder thrive in the open court. Thus it would be a mistake for the Bulls to try to outrun them. Instead, a balanced attack that forces OKC to expend extra energy in fighting through a series of picks will be key to taking control of the game.

Offensively the Bulls also need to get and keep all five players on the floor involved in the action. They simply cannot allow their offense to morph into a series of ball-stopping, one-on-one battles. Chicago must keep the ball jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force OKC to chase. The Thunder currently lead the league in points off turnovers (21.4), thus the Bulls have to be practical with the ball and not attempt to thread too many passes into tight, contested spots that could easily get picked off and ignite a fast-paced Thunder offense.

Westbrook can be unstoppable in the open court, and especially if allowed to drive through the paint. Defensively Chicago has to do whatever they can to keep him away from the basket. Forcing Westbrook to live outside and launch contested three-pointers most of the night would be the best course of action as he's connecting just 24.8 percent from long distance this season.

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