Three keys to Bulls-Thunder: Bulls host one of NBA's hottest teams

Three keys to Bulls-Thunder: Bulls host one of NBA's hottest teams

You can bet new Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen was thrilled to get two full days of practice before starting a three-game homestand Friday night against the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder.

Boylen told reporters he was going back to basics, holding a pair of training camp-style practices complete with the old high school suicide runs to improve the team’s conditioning. Which begs the question: Will we see a Bulls’ team take the court with tired legs on Friday?

Let’s hope not, because the Thunder roll into town winning 16 of their last 19 games after an 0-4 start. Wednesday night, they rallied from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to win at Brooklyn on Paul George’s late 3-pointer. George was sensational against the Nets, scoring 25 of his 47 points in the final 12 minutes.

Russell Westbrook had another triple double against Brooklyn, raising his season averages to 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10 assists. It’s amazing to think he could AVERAGE a triple-double for the third year in a row, and in the history of the league only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was able to do it even once.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan will go with a two point guard lineup at times, featuring Westbrook and speedy Dennis Schroder. The Thunder were able to get Schroder from Atlanta in the Carmelo Anthony salary dump, and the move has paid big dividends, especially considering defensive stopper Andre Roberson had a setback in his injury rehab and is out indefinitely.

Horace Grant’s nephew Jerami is now starting in Anthony’s old spot at power forward and he provides the Thunder with more athleticism and defense. Second-year pro Terrance Ferguson has moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard for Roberson, with Schroder leading a second unit that includes Alex Abrines, Nerlens Noel and Patrick Patterson.

And, let’s not forget about the man in the middle, New Zealand native Steven Adams. Adams is one of the league’s strongest big men and will provide a unique challenge for Bulls’ rookie Wendell Carter Jr. It’s been a crash course on life in the NBA for the 19-year-old Carter, and that will continue with the physical play in the paint he can expect from Adams, who’s shooting nearly 60 percent from the field while averaging 14.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

So, what can the Bulls do to slow down one of the league’s best teams?

1. Make Westbrook a jump shooter. If the former league MVP has one weakness, it’s his insistence on trying to prove to everyone he’s a good long-range shooter. For the season, Westbrook is only making 22 percent of his tries from beyond the arc, but he’ll keep firing away no matter how many he might have missed on a given night. The Bulls need to play off him in half-court sets and make him prove he can make some 3’s.

2. Use Markkanen in the post. Neither Grant nor George have the size to match up with the 7-foot Finn in the post, so given the newfound emphasis on half-court execution, the Bulls’ guards have to get the ball to Markkanen when he’s isolated 1-on-1 down low. Plus, the second-year power forward has to demand the ball when he realizes he has a match-up he can exploit.

3. Play at a favorable pace. Boylen talked about playing at a slower pace initially to force opposing teams to defend for all 24 seconds on the shot clock. The new coach says he learned that “road dog” mentality from Gregg Popovich when he was an assistant for Pop in San Antonio. Trying to run with Westbrook, Schroder and George will almost certainly lead to a loss, so the Bulls will need to try to keep the Thunder around 100 points (they’re averaging 111), and hope they can execute well enough to win a close game at home.

Don’t forget you can watch Friday night’s game on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Stacey King will join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and I for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center concourse (near Gate 3) at 6:30 p.m. Plus, NBC’s national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh checks in to discuss the Bulls and his latest column on how the 3-point shot is impacting the pro game.

After Stacey and Neil Funk are done calling the action, make sure to stay tuned for Boylen’s news conference and player reaction on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders.


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

In this edition of the Windy City roundup we look at JaKarr Sampson, who has been playing well in an intriguing role with the Windy City Bulls.

Sampson, a two-year player at St. John’s University, averaged 13 PPG and 6 RPG on 46 percent in his college career. However, the most impressive part of his college resume were the hustle stats. Over his two seasons in college, Sampson averaged just over two offensive rebounds per game and racked up 125 combined steals/blocks.

That mentality has followed him to the pros, where he has been great at getting to the rim, drawing fouls and blocking shots.

But Sampson hasn’t been spectacular with his finishing in the NBA. And on top of that, the lack of (any) noticeable progress with his shooting stroke makes it hard to find a spot for him, even in the increasingly position-less NBA.

But the Windy City Bulls and head coach Charlie Henry have been using Sampson as a small-ball center, with intriguing results.

Through 6 games in the 2018-19 NBA G League season, Sampson is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field.

He is one of the tallest players on the team as, Windy City has no players taller than 6-foot 8 on the roster. Despite starting a 6-foot 8 player at center, Windy City has the 2nd best defensive rating in the league (100.6) over the last five games.

And while he has helped the Bulls have a great NBA G League defense, his offensive value also offers upside. Sampson has been able to use his quickness to beat lumbering bigs off the dribble. He has also gotten slightly better at timing his rolls to the basket to receive dump off passes from his guards.

For pretty much the first time in Sampson’s basketball career (even dating back to high school) he is starting to make an earnest attempt to stretch his range out to the 3-point line. He is taking just over two 3-point attempts per game. While he is shooting a poor 28 percent from deep, those couple 3-point attempts per night help Windy City’s offense by dragging opposing bigs out of the paint to contest shots.

Sampson’s aggressiveness is at an all-time high with the Bulls. He has a gargantuan usage rate that is north of 30 percent, impressive considering that he hasn’t had to shoulder a heavy load on offense in quite some time. He is turning the ball over a considerable amount and that is perhaps the one thing knocking down his offensive value.

He has an impressive assist rate from the center spot, so the skill is there and simply needs to be raised a level. That obviously becomes much easier when you play with better teammates.

If Sampson was to play with the Chicago Bulls, he obviously would be a low-usage player. This in turn could make his solid passing ability a huge plus, since the Bulls have some interesting offensive pieces with Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen all returning to join Zach LaVine in the rotation.

And with Sampson showing that he can be effective against centers who are non-scoring threats, he would be a nice player to give spot minutes to when Wendell Carter Jr. is in foul trouble (especially early in games).

Succeeding at the highest levels in today’s NBA is all about the 3-point shot, lineup versatility and a commitment to the defensive side of the ball. And Sampson checks off two of the three boxes with certainty, making him a solid bet to be one of the next Windy City Bulls players to receive a call up.

Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen show the potential of the Bulls core in win over Spurs


Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen show the potential of the Bulls core in win over Spurs

The Bulls have struggled to close out games in the 2018-19 season and a big part of that was the absence of point guard Kris Dunn. Despite being a limited shooter throughout his young NBA career, he was actually a pivotal offensive player for the Bulls in clutch situations last season. Dunn (again) showed off just how valuable he can be in late-game situations on Saturday night.

In a game where the Spurs held a 21-point lead, the Bulls rode the offense of Lauri Markkanen and Dunn to a comeback victory. Dunn and Markkanen combined for 47 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists in the win.

Guard play was the key in this win though, as Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono were the few players determined to take smart shots while also getting to the ball to Markkanen when he had a mismatch. Everyone on the roster needs to work more on post-entry passes to Markkanen, as we have seen how awesome the results can be for an offense short on shot-makers.

But Dunn can become one of those shot-makers. We all know that to reach his absolute ceiling, his 3-point jump shot will need to develop. However, if he focuses heavily on getting to his “sweet spots” on the floor, he will ultimately mitigate any concerns about his shot.

Against the Spurs Dunn was 0-2 from the 3-point line but finished 4-7 on shots inside the paint, which contributed to the Bulls outscoring San Antonio 42-32 on points in the paint.

The Bulls are still struggling to score inside and were mostly helped by playing a Spurs team that is similarly awful at the 3-point shot, and not great at generating free throws. But a road win over the Spurs is impressive considering the turmoil surrounding this Bulls team.

Chicago was burned by a 3-point flurry from Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans and Patty Mills in the second quarter. But the Bulls settled down and really locked-in defensively in the 2nd half. The Bulls collected 12 steals and 8 blocks in San Antonio, including a big-time double swat from the frontcourt of the future.

The team seems to be adjusting (relatively) well to the hyper-active coaching style of Boylen.

Since Boylen’s 1st game as Bulls’ head coach on December 4, the Bulls have ranked 15th in the league in defensive rating and have had noticeably better rotations on defense. But the offense has posted a historically terrible 95.1 points per 100 possessions in that same timeframe under Boylen.

But wins like Saturday night’s show that the Bulls can play with some mental toughness down the stretch of close games.

Bulls fans finally got to see a glimpse of the Dunn-Markkanen combination thriving at the same time. If they can consistently play with that same type of aggressiveness when LaVine returns to the lineup, Boylen and the Bulls can truly put what was a tough week behind them and focus on building a positive team-first culture.