The Bulls kick off a four-game road swing tonight in Oklahoma City, when they take on Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Thunder’s last five (3-2)
Dec. 14 — L at Nuggets: 110-102
Dec. 11 — L at Kings: 94-93
Dec. 9 — W at Jazz: 104-90
Dec. 8 — W at Trail Blazers: 108-96
Dec. 6 — W vs. Timberwolves: 139-127
Storyline(s) for each team
When the Thunder stripped their roster of its two best players — Russell Westbrook and Paul George — last offseason in trades that yielded Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Galinari and a treasure trove of draft picks, they appeared primed for the lottery — albeit nicely situated for the future. Now, at 11-14, they’re on pace for their first losing season in over a decade, but are vying for a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs, all the same. (Caveat: They’ll likely fall out of contention if they find takers for Paul, Galinari and/or Steven Adams before February’s trade deadline.)
Still, they enter this one a fun, surprising team on the heels of a four-game west coast swing. The Bulls are coming off a four-game homestand (which they finished 2-2) and their first win against an above-.500 team this season (I don’t care who played, it counts). Tonight’s matchup features two teams with crisscrossing preseason expectations and reality, but also a host of exciting talent.
Player to watch: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Gilgeous-Alexander is an absolute joy to watch, and it makes me immensely happy to see him thriving in Oklahoma City alongside Paul. In his second season and on a new team, SGA’s field goal attempts are up from 8.7 to 15.4 per, he’s playing nearly nine more minutes per game and his usage is up to from 18.3 to 24.9%. His efficiency has slipped marginally (43.4/35.1/79.7 shooting splits) and he’s not an 8-10 assist guy yet, but he has an elastic frame, is tremendous defensively and is as silky-smooth with the ball as anyone in the league:
Especially fun will be watching Gilgeous-Alexander match up with a Bulls backcourt notorious for stifling opposing guards. The Bulls will have their hands full between him, Paul and a reborn Dennis Schroeder, but Kris Dunn — who just went toe-to-toe with Paul George on Saturday — should be up for a scrap.
Matchup to watch: Pace
The Thunder live in the halfcourt with Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander as their primary ball-handlers and the slow-footed Galinari, Adams and Abdel Nader surrounding them in their starting lineup. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder run 82.4% of their plays in the halfcourt (second-highest in the NBA) and are by far the least efficient transition team in the league. For reference: The Thunder score 98.7 points per 100 transition possessions, the 29th-ranked Knicks score 110.9.
All of that’s to say, if the Thunder have their way, this game will be played at a plodding pace, while the Bulls are at their best and most efficient when they’re running off of steals and live rebounds (they score 126.4 points per 100 in transition, per Cleaning the Glass). The Bulls force the most opponent turnovers (18.4) per game in the NBA, the Thunder commit (14.2) the ninth-least. That tug-of-war will be instrumental to the result of this game, and assuredly worth watching. Something has to give.
Trends to watch
Zach LaVine enters tonight’s game averaging 25.4 points on 45.4% shooting from the field, 48% from three (8.2 attempts) on the road.
In their last 12 games, the Bulls have the second-ranked defense in the NBA (by defensive rating). Seriously.
The Bulls’ frontcourt has become a bit of a logjam, with three guys (Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter and Thad Young) all vying for starter-level minutes. Against the Clippers, Markkanen played 40, Carter 36 and Young 20. Versus the Hornets the night before, Markkanen played 26, Carter 24 and Young 27 (and Daniel Gafford 20). Keep an eye on this, especially if Gafford (hamstring) re-enters the rotation tonight, or Carter finds himself in foul trouble.
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