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

Rob Schaefer
NBC Sports Chicago

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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What to watch for: Bulls seek signature road win against Boston Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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