Friday night, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat (10-3) visit the United Center to take on the Bulls (5-10). The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Not your mother’s Miami Heat
The Heat’s torrid 10-3 start to the season has caught much of the NBA cognoscenti by surprise — not necessarily because of their general performance, but because of a number of new names helping lead the charge.
Chief among that group are rookie guard Kendrick Nunn and second-year forward Duncan Robinson. Each of them have carved out spots in the team’s current starting lineup, and their play has been critical with both Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow missing stretches early on (Winslow, along with Derrick Jones Jr., didn’t travel with the team for tonight’s game or their game in Philadelphia on Saturday).
Nunn hit a blip at the beginning of November after a scorching hot October, but is averaging 19 points, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals on 53.4% shooting (43.5% 3-point shooting) in his last five games. He’s a certified pest, defensively, too. Robinson, for his part, is coming off the game of his life, in which he stroked nine three pointers (seven in the second quarter) in a blowout win over Cleveland:
Of course, the heralded guys are performing, as well. Since returning to the team, Butler is doing Butler things — leading the team in usage, scoring and assists, while also ranking top two in the league in steals (2.7, 1st) and deflections (3.9, 2nd) per game. Goran Dragic, who’s been supplanted by Nunn, has adapted nicely to a bench role and Bam Adebayo is fast becoming one of the more dynamic two-way bigs in the league.
Offensively, the Heat are a team predicated on quick and consistent ball movement — they’re ninth in the league in passes made per game and second in assist rate. That kind of philosophy can result in turnovers, and the Heat are dead last in the NBA in that category, both in turnover rate and turnovers per game. If the Bulls’ rotations are sound, that’s an area they can capitalize in.
Still, Miami is a well-coached and well-rounded squad that plays every game like it’s their last. A Bulls upset won’t come easy.
A tough defensive matchup
Miami enters the game the third-rated defense in the league, buoyed by a robust rotation of pesky on-ball defenders and the switchable, high-leaping Adebayo in the middle. They’re a tremendous defensive rebounding group, force the second most turnovers per game (trailing only the Bulls) in the NBA and don’t allow many looks around the rim — a place where the Bulls shoot frequently and inefficiently.
Where the Heat have gotten somewhat fortunate is defending the three-point line. Miami is alone at the top of the league in opponent three-point percentage (30.1%), but opponents are shooting only 33.5% on ‘wide-open’ attempts against them (as defined by NBA.com as shots without a defender within six feet of the shooter). The Bulls allow the same percentage on ‘wide-open’ three-pointers, well below the league average of 37.8%.
If the Bulls can catch fire from behind the arc, as they did against Detroit (14-for-27 from deep), it could be an area they can close the gap. And in that vein, after struggling mightily on the glass at the outset of the season, the Bulls rank fifth in the NBA in rebounding rate (52.5%) in their last five games — two of which were against formidable frontcourts in Milwaukee and Detroit. The Heat excel in that area, so it’s worth monitoring if the Bulls can keep that momentum rolling.
Bulls get (another) shot at a good team
The Bulls enter this contest 0-6 against teams with winning records this season. They were 7-40 in that department in 2018-19 and 9-41 the year before. That’s a combined 16-87 record against better-than-.500 teams in the last three years. Yikes.
Tonight, they get a chance to begin flipping that script. Blowing out dismal Detroit is encouraging, but conversations about a real corner being turned should be suspended until the Bulls start at least competing against the league’s best.
Jimmy Butler returns for the third time, with a third team
Since being traded from the Bulls in June 2017, Jimmy Butler has returned to the United Center as a visitor twice, once with the Timberwolves and once with the 76ers. Both of those games resulted in one-point Bulls wins.
In Miami, it seems he’s found a home. But Chicago still holds a special place in his heart.
“It’s always special to play here. This is where I started,” Butler said of returning to Chicago. “I was fortunate to be able to play in front of these wonderful fans in this great city and obviously all the history that went on here with the players that I was able to play with… I’ll always have love for this city. That will never change.”
Chicago fans will appreciate that sentiment, but certainly wouldn’t mind if tonight’s matchup goes similarly to Butler’s last two return trips.
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