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:
Do you remember the last time the Chicago Bulls faced the Boston Celtics?@ZachLaVine finished with 42 points, @MarkkanenLauri finished with 35 points. They became the first duo in Bulls history since Michael Jordan & Scottie Pippen back in 1996 to score 30+ in the same game. pic.twitter.com/C7RDpWqSPt— Josh J. (@JoshJBullsHoops) January 4, 2020
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
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.
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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