Jaylen Brown

What to watch for: Celtics visit Bulls in uniquely challenging matchup

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USA TODAY

What to watch for: Celtics visit Bulls in uniquely challenging matchup

Fresh off a competitive loss to the Jazz, the Bulls welcome the 24-8 Celtics to the United Center. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here’s what to watch for:

Celtics’ last five games (4-1)

  • Jan. 3 — W vs. Hawks: 109-106

  • Dec. 31 — W at Hornets: 109-92

  • Dec. 28 — L vs. Raptors: 113-97

  • Dec. 27 — W vs. Cavaliers: 129-117

  • Dec. 25 — W at Raptors: 118-102

Storyline(s) to watch

The word of the day is balance, on both ends of the floor. Boston enters Saturday with the fifth-rated offense and third-rated defense in the NBA, proficiencies that have translated to a 24-8 record and a +7.7 average point differential — second only to the Bucks (+12.9). Between Kemba Walker (22.5 ppg), Jayson Tatum (21.1) and Jaylen Brown (20.7), they’re also the only team in the league with more than three 20-point scorers.

Of course, one of them will be missing tonight in Walker. But the bottom line is, this team profiles — statistically, at least — as a legitimate title contender, questions of size aside. 

The Bulls’ edge could come from the fact that the Celtics are not-so-fresh off a nail-biting victory over the Hawks in Boston on Friday that saw all of their starters (outside of center Daniel Theis) play over 35 minutes. Sure, it’s another shorthanded opponent, but a win tonight would go a long way towards cementing the Bulls as legitimately competitive for the East’s final playoff spot.

Small aside: these teams met twice in Chicago last season, both results maniacal. On Dec. 8, 2018, remember, the Celtics thumped the Bulls by 56 points in the third game of the Jim Boylen era. Then, on Feb. 23, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 77 points (LaVine's 42 was a career high at the time) in a 126-116 Bulls victory: 


More fireworks tonight?

Player(s) to watch: The Jays

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, that is. Especially with Walker out, look for those two — forever conjoined by the letters in their names and their statuses as the Celtics’ cornerstones — to shoulder much of the scoring load. 

Tatum has upped his volume to 18.3 field goal attempts per game this season while sacrificing some efficiency (41.6% from the field and a slew of woeful shooting performances), but has flashed the chops of a premier scorer and team-defender. Though he’s still working to finish consistently around the rim and eschew ill-advised midrange looks, he’s devastating from above-the-break (37.7% on 5.5 attempts per game) and evokes dread with every dribble when he’s on:

 

Brown, for his part, has been one of the league’s more pleasant surprises. After signing a four-year, $115 million extension that was panned in some corners last offseason, he’s come out and made a certifiable leap as a ballhandler, shot-creator and -maker. In his fourth year, he’s averaging career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.1), assists (2.4) and steals (1.1) with shooting splits of 52.1/40.1/74.8 that inspire confidence in his oft-questioned jumpshot.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that both are in the middle of All-Star pushes. Brown, specifically, finished the first round of fan-voting two slots behind LaVine in the East’s backcourt ranks, and him and LaVine will likely match up plenty in this one. It’ll be a great test of LaVine’s mettle on both ends and plenty of fun for everyone watching.

Matchup to watch: Turnovers

You could say this for every Bulls game — they both force the most turnovers per game (18.3) and score the highest percentage of their points off turnovers (20.2%) in the NBA by staggering margins.

But the Celtics are a well-coached team that won’t bumble into many unforced mistakes. They sport the league’s seventh lowest turnover rate and allow opponents only 12.1 fastbreak points per game (also seventh-lowest).

If the Bulls can’t goad them into many errors, beware of the bogged-down half-court sets that have become all too common for this team. The Celtics are exceptionally versatile, and though they’ll certainly miss Walker, they’re 11.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the floor per Cleaning the Glass (hello, Marcus Smart). There’s simply no such thing as an easy bucket against this team, which averages 6.2 blocked shots and 8.1 steals per game — both top 10 figures — and grinds out every possession.

This could be Kris Dunn's — and the Bulls' surging defense's — greatest test yet, given the Celtics' size and talent on the wing. He'll be up for it.

Injury updates:

  • In addition to Walker’s absence, Enes Kanter will reportedly be a gametime decision for Boston. The Bulls would be glad to skip out on 15-20 Kanter minutes tonight — he’s a bully on the offensive glass and finishing around the rim, two areas that have swung games out of the Bulls’ favor in the past.

  • Chandler Hutchison is inactive after playing 39 minutes in the Windy City Bulls’ game against the Wisconsin Herd (Bucks’ G League affiliate) last night. He had 14 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals on 6-for-20 shooting and threw down this eye-popping transition jam:

 

Hutchison has been out since Nov. 27 with a right shoulder ailment.

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Kemba Walker battling the flu one day before matchup with Bulls

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USA TODAY

Kemba Walker battling the flu one day before matchup with Bulls

Before packing their bags for Chicago, the Celtics will host the Atlanta Hawks in Boston on Friday night.

But, according to NBC Sports Boston's Chris Forsberg, Kemba Walker will miss the front end of that back-to-back with the flu. With the Celtics about to embark on a two-game road swing, this has the potential to impact Walker's availability for the team's Saturday night matchup with the Bulls.

If Walker is unable to travel or play, the Celtics will represent the latest in a long line of shorthanded opponents for the Bulls. Already this season, the Bulls have fallen to a Pacers team missing Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, beaten a Kings team without De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, and notched their only victory over a winning team against a Clippers squad sans Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And that's just naming a few.

Jaylen Brown, who's enjoying a breakout fourth-year campaign, is also battling illness (he missed the Celtics' New Years Eve matchup with the Hornets), but is officially listed as probable against Atlanta.

Marcus Smart had slid into Boston's starting lineup in Brown's absence — assuming he returns, Smart likely sticks with that unit in Walker's place. Smart has shown marked improvements as a shooter the past two seasons, but he doesn't approach the individual scoring prowess or shiftiness of a guy like Walker. Still, he adds to the fearsomeness and switchability of the Celtics defense and poses challenges as a playmaker, as well.

In a corresponding move with the Walker news, the Celtics reportedly recalled rookie guard Tremont Waters from the G League (also per Forsberg). In 15 games with the Maine Red Claws, Waters is averaging 20.4 points, 7.7 assists and 2.3 steals per contest while shooting 37.8% from 3. It's unclear if he'd see time unless in the event of a blowout, but his minutes are worth taking note of:

Walker is averaging 22.5 points and 5.2 assists on a Celtics team that has sprinted out to a 24-8 start to the season. In the first round of All-Star fan voting returns, he finished third among Eastern Conference guards, two spots ahead of Zach LaVine.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

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.

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

It’s not exactly a skill, which is good considering the makeup of the Bulls’ roster. And it’s tough to measure, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they rank among other teams. But its results can be easily seen, and in a year where the Bulls have swapped out talent for youth, they’re discovering an energy and passion that’s suddenly resulting in unexpected victories.

The Bulls moved their winning streak to three games on Monday night against a tired and depleted – and yet still far more talented – Celtics team, earning a decisive 108-85 victory that displayed just how much this team still cares. Granted, caring alone and playing with energy won’t have them playing in May or June, but good habits being formed by young players give some optimism for the future.

It was everywhere on Monday night. A letdown of sorts from the Celtics could have been predicted. Boston was playing its third road game in four nights, and the first two (San Antonio on Friday, Detroit on Sunday) were anything but easy. MVP candidate Kyrie Irving was resting a quad contusion and even Al Horford (knee) wasn’t cleared to play until about 20 minutes until tip.

But talent alone still could have pushed the Celtics ahead against an inferior Bulls team. With young wins Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a backcourt of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, and 30 minutes of Horford the Celtics were still equipped to get by a Bulls team that entered Monday with the league’s worst record.

But it didn’t happen. The Bulls were far more aggressive, contested jumpers that Boston wouldn’t, played passing lanes and went after loose balls that the Celtics watched more often than not. Boston took 40 3-pointers even without Irving (and Marcus Morris), and they committed 15 turnovers. It was sloppy throughout, and the Bulls took advantage.

Nikola Mirotic, starting in place of Lauri Markkanen (back), scored 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Kris Dunn was solid again, and the bench scored 30 first-half points that allowed the Bulls to lead by as many as 18 on a team that hadn’t lost a game by double digits all season.

Bobby Portis scored 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, David Nwaba continued his stretch of stellar play with 13 points, six rebounds and a steal, and Jerian Grant chipped in nine assists in 23 minutes off the bench. The Bulls were solid across the board, holding the C's to their lowest point total of the year and shooting 48 percent with 12 3-pointers against the most efficient defense in the league. 

“This is third game in a row now that everybody that’s stepped on the floor has made a positive contribution for the team,” Hoiberg noted.

Those habits are something Fred Hoiberg has seen all season, and his comments sounded more genuine than simple coach-speak. These Bulls players, a majority who are fighting for their spots in the league and their futures, have had the right attitude every night. The talent in the league is the result of a 6-20 record, not the effort.

“Even when we were going through the (10-game) losing streak our guys were coming in and continuing to work. They were very attentive in practice and film sessions,” Hoiberg said. “They kept their head down, kept grinding, and it’s paying off for us with the way these guys are going out every night and competing.

“We’ve come in every day and talked about, win or lose, taking steps in the right direction.”

The Bulls are still headed for the Lottery, and the truth is the majority of these Bulls working every day won’t be on the team when it’s time to contend for titles. But in a season where the Bulls had lost 15 and 16 without much of a direction, a three-game winning streak shows that this team is heading in the direction Hoiberg wants and that better days are coming because of it.