Jayson Tatum

What to watch for: Bulls seek signature road win against Boston Celtics

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What to watch for: Bulls seek signature road win against Boston Celtics

Celtics’ last five games (2-3)

  • Jan. 11 — W vs. Pelicans: 140-105

  • Jan. 9 — L at 76ers: 109-98

  • Jan. 8 — L vs. Spurs: 129-114

  • Jan. 6 — L at Wizards: 99-94

  • Jan. 4 — W at Bulls: 111-104

Storyline(s) to watch

The Celtics (26-11) are just one game removed from their longest losing streak of the season, but that game was a 140-point outburst against the Pelicans in which Jayson Tatum dropped a career-high 41 points. Boston is among the most balanced teams in the league — ranking third in net rating — and though the Bulls (14-26) hung around in their Jan. 4 matchup in Chicago, the Celtics’ 15-3 home record looms ominous tonight. 

Even after bouncing the Pistons in Detroit on Saturday, the Bulls remain in search of a signature win. Well, this would certainly qualify. Adversity abounds: Kemba Walker is back for Boston after missing their prior meetup, and Wendell Carter Jr.’s absence will be especially felt against a team that both outrebounded and outscored the Bulls in the paint by solid margins just over a week ago.  A victory would send a message.

Player to watch: Kemba Walker

On Jan. 4, the Celtics’ wings (Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward) burned the Bulls to the tune of a combined 71 points on 28-for-42 shooting. And they may very well again. But Walker’s reintroduction into the Celtics’ rotation presents another host of challenges for the Bulls to contend with. 

It starts with the pick-and-roll. The Celtics run the ninth most pick-and-roll in the NBA (23.7 possessions per game) with the league’s second-highest points per possession (1.00) and third-lowest turnover rate (11.3%) on such plays — Walker helms exactly 10 of those possessions per contest and is adept at the controls: His points per possession (1.07), eFG% (56.2%) and turnover rate (10%) in PnR all rank in the top six of ball-handlers that run at least five per game. 

He’s especially dangerous coming around high screens and firing off the dribble. Walker shoots 36.1% on 6.1 pull up 3-pointers per game — healthy efficiency on solid volume — and only needs an inch to get his shot off:


The Bulls are equipped to deal with such a threat — they force opponents out of pick-and-roll plays, and force turnovers and limit efficiency in them, better than any group in the league. As usual, the onus will be on staying out of foul trouble and making the Celtics’ ancillary playmakers uncomfortable if and when they do force the ball out of Walker's hands. 

Matchup to watch: Third quarter performance

The third quarter swung these teams’ last game, a familiar trope for the 2019-20 Bulls. The Celtics won the period 30-21, pushing a 55-52 halftime advantage to 85-73 entering the fourth, and held the Bulls to 31.2% shooting from the field and 1-for-7 from deep.

On the season, the Celtics sport second-highest third quarter net rating in the NBA (+13.9) compared to the Bulls’ 29th (-9.6). From first to second halves, the Celtics’ offensive rating jumps from 107.1 to 116.1 and their shooting percentages across the board increase substantially, while the Bulls’ defensive rating slips from second in the NBA in the first quarter, to sixth in the second, to 18th in the third, to 19th in the fourth.  

If this game is competitive coming out of the halftime break — likely, considering the Bulls’ propensity for fast starts and the Celtics’ propensity for the opposite — both teams’ urgency and adjustments coming out of the half could decide this one, too.

News and nuggets

  • No injury news or suspect reports from either team outside of the usual. Daniel Gafford will stick with the starters, per Jim Boylen.

  • Beware, once again, of Enes Kanter’s minutes. On Jan. 4, Kanter put up 17 points and 12 rebounds (six offensive) off the bench and led a demoralizing late third-quarter spurt in which he scored eight points in just a minute-and-a-half. The Bulls will hunt Kanter in space on the offensive end of the floor, but his ability in the post and on the glass has the potential to do damage again — especially against the Bulls' reserves.

  • Last time these teams met, Kris Dunn drew extended minutes guarding Tatum, but with Walker back, it’ll be interesting to see how Jim Boylen chooses to deploy his best perimeter defender. Tatum dropped 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting on Jan. 4, but a lot of those makes were incredibly tough (and borderline irreplicable) shots down the stretch.

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Bulls' lackluster third quarter took away from rally against Celtics

Bulls' lackluster third quarter took away from rally against Celtics

When Jim Boylen called for time to quell an 8-0 Celtics run with 1:25 left in the third quarter, something about the game felt over.

A juiceless United Center crowd, which buzzed merrily along through the contest's first 35-and-a-half minutes, was evidence of that. The Celtics, up 83-71, were pulling away, and the dreaded third quarter had struck again.

“We gotta be more locked in, have more sense of urgency,” Kris Dunn said of the team’s struggles out of halftime this season. “We have to have awareness to understand that we have been poor in the third quarter.”

For the season, the Bulls’ -8.9 third quarter net rating (101.5 offensive, 110.5 defensive, 26th in the NBA) is their worst for any period by a wide margin. Their first (+4.1) and second (+1.8) quarter net ratings are both, in fact, positive, while in the fourth quarter (-1.9) they register just in the red. The Bulls shot 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 from 3 in the third period on Saturday.  

That inefficiency often renders the team’s counterpunches vain. Against Boston, they responded to the Celtics pulling ahead 93-77 early in the fourth with a 15-2 run over a breathless two-and-a-half minute span. Frankly, it was exhilarating. Bodies and balls were flying, fastbreak chances (and conversions) abounded and the United Center was in a frothing frenzy.

But then, as suddenly as it started, the action halted. That score — 95-92 — held for the next 1:21 before a Gordon Hayward layup extended the Celtics’ lead to five. The visitors pulled away from there, eventually winning 111-104.

Dunn called that minute-and-a-half stalemate “nothing” in the context of a basketball game. Still, the Bulls scored just 12 points the rest of the way after hitting 92 with 7:21 minutes left in the game.

“Our execution on the offensive end, the plays we didn't make, the things we didn't finish, to me, were the difference in the game,” Boylen said. “They made big plays down the stretch.”

“Obviously, we come back with a fight, it’s not like we don’t have that in us,” Zach LaVine said. “But sometimes, it’s too little too late.”

After losing to the Utah Jazz in tooth-and-nail fashion earlier this week, Wendell Carter Jr. called late-game execution “about 95%” mental and stressed that as a block this team still has yet to clear. In falling to the Celtics, another explanation came to fruition, though perhaps they work in concert.

“Fourth quarter, that's when the level rises for each team. It's time to buckle down and see who can execute more, who can get more stops. So, in the third quarter we can't have those mishaps and allow teams to jump out on us where now we're down 12 and we're playing catch-up,” Dunn said.

The reality is, in the Bulls’ best offensive moments, the team is reliant on grinding defensively, generating turnovers and capitalizing on the fastbreak. The sustainability of that strategy is suspect, proven more so with each hard-fought loss that culminates with lacking halfcourt offense.

“That takes a lot of energy, playing catch-up,” Dunn continued. “So we gotta be able to withstand and keep things close.”

But credit the Celtics in two key areas: Their length and activity was a major problem (the Bulls shot 42.5% and committed an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers), and Jayson Tatum hit some flat out ridiculous shots.

“The only thing I can do is tip my hat off, he made a lot of great plays,” Dunn said. When asked if he said anything to Tatum after his last 3-pointer to put Boston ahead 108-101, Dunn retorted: “I didn't say nothing to him. I said something to myself, like what the f***? I mean, you make that shot, you got it rolling. And he had it rolling.” 

This truly was a make-or-miss game. The Bulls being on the wrong end of too many of those might rush some to referendum, but the players are maintaining perspective, and still taking lessons away.

“They get down or teams make a run, they know how to withstand it, and that's what they did,” Dunn said of the Celtics. “Adversity hit and you could see it in their face, they were poised, they wasn't worried. They believed in their system, they kept executing and that's what we have to take from the game.”

“We keep stringing these games together,” LaVine said. “But it’s not going to get any easier.”

He’s certainly correct in that. The Bulls play the resurgent Mavericks in Dallas Monday night.

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


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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