Oklahoma City (2-3) suffered its second tough loss to Minnesota in seven days, this time losing 119-116 on Friday night. Carmelo Anthony scored 23 points but missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as the Thunder kicked off their three-game road swing that wraps up Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
Russell Westbrook had 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but also committed eight turnovers. The Thunder also struggled on the boards, allowing the Timberwolves to grab 16 on the offensive end, and Minnesota scored 11 of its 24 second-chance points in the fourth quarter.
Chicago (1-3) broke through for its first win Thursday night, turning back Atlanta 91-86. Robin Lopez scored 16 points to pace six Bulls in double figures, and David Nwaba contributed 15 points and a career-high 11 rebounds off the bench for his first career double-double after totaling nine points and 11 boards in his first three games.
Rookie Lauri Markkanen had 14 points and 12 rebounds for his second double-double, helping the Bulls amass a 62-40 edge in rebounds. Chicago also outscored Atlanta 22-11 at the foul line to overcome shooting 36.0 percent from the field.
Three keys to the game
The Thunder need to crash on the boards - Oklahoma City has struggled to rebound, especially on the defensive end. The Thunder have given up 58 offensive rebounds that have let opponents score 82 points. They have been outrebounded in three of their five games and while Westbrook hovers around a triple-double every game, the Thunder need to help Steven Adams more.
Better offensive discipline for the Bulls - Chicago ranked 29th in shooting (40.9 percent) through games played Thursday in part because it often settles for jumpers in the half-court set. Despite grabbing 18 offensive rebounds against the Hawks, the Bulls had just eight second-chance points.
They have also committed an average of 16.8 turnovers, and while it didn't hurt that much against a slower Hawks team, live-ball turnovers against a Thunder team that likes to attack and has finishers will almost assuredly result in a loss.
Feed your friends, then feed yourself - In the last two games, Westbrook has made a conscious effort to get his teammates involved offensively early, racking up nine assists in the first quarter of those contests. Coach Billy Donovan will usually let Westbrook play nine-plus minutes before substituting him out, so look for the Thunder to push the pace early and put the Bulls on their heels.
Matchup to watch
Thunder PF Carmelo Anthony vs. Bulls PF Lauri Markkanen - Another game, another high-profile defensive assignment for the Bulls rookie. This matchup, however, will have some old-school feel to it because Anthony likes using the jab step to create space for his jump shot and also uses a spin move when operating in the low post.
To his credit, Markkanen has not been too much of a defensive liability as the Bulls have been outscored by only three points while he's been on the floor and averaging over 33 minutes. It will be a curious clash of old and new on the United Center court.
Oklahoma City Thunder projected starting lineup
PG - Russell Westbrook | SG - Andre Roberson | C - Steven Adams | SF - Paul George | PF - Carmelo Anthony
Chicago Bulls projected starting lineup
PG - Jerian Grant | SG - Paul Zipser | C - Robin Lopez | SF - Justin Jackson | PF - Lauri Markkanen
Anthony has scored in double figures in all 36 games he has played against the Bulls, averaging 25.7 points. In his last seven while playing for the New York Knicks, he averaged 24.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
Westbrook, however, is the better play here because the Bulls have not shown the ability to defend ball-control point guards. He's shot 50 percent or better in four of five games this season and has recorded three triple-doubles in eight games in Chicago while averaging 21.9 points, 8.6 assists and 7.5 rebounds in those contests.
There are plenty of trends on the Thunder's side: They are 8-1 in their last nine games against the spread versus Eastern Conference opponents, 4-0 against the spread in their last four games against Central Division opponents and 11-5 against the spread in their last 16 games at Chicago.
Favored by nine points makes Oklahoma City a strong play, as does taking the over against 204.5 points. The Thunder have hit 105 points in four of their five games, and the Bulls have struggled defensively to contain ball-control point guards, which plays right into Westbrook's style.
This is a simple equation for Oklahoma City. When the Thunder make the commitment to defend, they usually win convincingly. They limited New York and Indiana to 37.0 percent shooting in their two victories, while Minnesota and Utah have shot 49.4 percent in their three losses.
Westbrook will likely have a big game since the Bulls couldn't keep Kyle Lowry and LeBron James in front of them previously. Chicago would be wise not to run with Oklahoma City and also force feed Lopez the ball given the Thunder's struggles when it comes to rebounding on the defensive end. In the end, though, Oklahoma City will have too much offense for Chicago and should emerge with a 115-99 victory.
This game will be televised locally on WGN-TV and Fox Sports Oklahoma. Tip-off time is 8 pm ET.
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