Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Celtics (02.23.19)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics close out their season series at the United Center. Boston won both the previous get-togethers, once in Beantown and the other here at the UC, in very convincing fashion. Tonight's contest is also the second of a back-to-back set for Chicago, who took on the Magic in Orlando last night, while Boston looks to bounce back after suffering a heartbreaking 98-97 loss in Milwaukee on Thursday.

Gang Green comes into this evening winners of seven of their last 10 games, yet they're sitting as the 5th seed in the East behind Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana and Philadelphia with an overall record of 37-22 on the year.

Boston's top player is veteran point guard Kyrie Irving, who once again has been spectacular when healthy enough to play. The 6'3” playmaker is currently in his eighth NBA season, averaging a team-leading 23.5 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 49.3% from the field and 41.1% from far. But as is his history, Irving's been battling a number of nagging injuries again this season. He missed the C's last two games prior to the All-Star break, and 11 overall. In the loss to the Bucks the other night he logged 41 minutes, notching a team-best 22 points. All indications are that he'll be able to answer the bell tonight against the Bulls, but then again, you just never know.

Offensively Chicago will have to make sure all five players on the floor stay involved in the action. The Bulls simply cannot allow their attack to morph into a series of ball-stopping one-on-one clashes. When they have the ball it needs to skip freely from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the Celtics' defense to cover ground and burn as much energy as possible. However, at the same time the Bulls must be sensible and not attempt to force action with contested passes that can easily end up snagged and fire-up Boston's already potent offense.

Defensively, Chicago will definitely need to pay close attention to the 3-point arc as the Celtics are again one of the NBA's leaders in long distance dialing, attempting 35.4 shots from behind the arc on a nightly basis. Not only do the C's feel free to fire away from far, they connect a lot, too. Only the Houston Rockets score more from behind the bend, as Boston averages 13.1 makes per game. Thus it's imperative Chicago aggressively run shooters off the arc throughout the night to force Boston to find other ways to put points on the board.

Without a doubt this evening's contest will be a very tough test for the Bulls. After a slow start to the season, Boston looks to be rounding into shape and ready to fight for the Eastern Conference crown. In order to keep pace with the Cs the Bulls will have to make their presence known on the glass. If they can take command of the boards — especially on the defensive end — the Bulls will give themselves an opportunity to exploit their wealth of athleticism, consistently flying down the floor in a hurry to post quick and easy scores before the Celtics are able to set up on defense.

Chicago will need to be aggressive and strong-minded throughout the night. Every player has to be willing to dig deep and bring an abundance of energy. In order for these young Bulls to succeed they are going have to play with an edge and leave everything they have out on the floor.