Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hawks (01.20.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (21-22) visit the Southeast Division leading Atlanta Hawks (24-18) in the second of four meetings set for this season. The Hawks won the first match up, also played in Atlanta, 115-107, back on November 9th. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, who was just named a starter for the Eastern Conference in this year’s All-Star Game, led all scorers with 39 points, and also added seven assists and six steals, while Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade also performed admirably, notching 25 points and five steals in 34 minutes. But those efforts simply weren’t good enough on their own to ground the Hawks, who had eight players score in double-figures, led by former Bulls guard Thabo Sefolosha, who came off the bench to post 20 points. Dwight Howard (18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks) and Paul Millsap (16 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks) also had big games for Atlanta.

So far this season Chicago has often thrived whenever they play fast from the moment the ball is tipped off. Thus, in order for them to come out on top this evening against one of the East’s top teams, Chicago will have to hit the hardwood with a great deal of energy and laser-like focus.

An important indicator as to how well the Bulls are going to play is how they perform on the boards. Chicago currently leads the league in rebounding with an average of 47.6 per game, while Atlanta, even with Dwight Howard (13.7 points & 13 rebounds) enjoying a rebirth of sorts, finds itself in the middle of the pack (16th) with an average of 43.7 boards. The Bulls also sit at the top of the league in offensive window cleaning with an impressive 13.6 average, while the Hawks come into tonight at No. 12 at 10.5 per game.

Yet Atlanta should not be taken lightly when it comes to board work. So far this season they have enjoyed eight 50 or more rebound nights and are 7-1 when that occurs. And when they outright win the battle of the boards, the Hawks are 17-6. Chicago, on the other hand, has grabbed 50 or more rebounds 14 times this season and are 11-3 in those contests, and have won 18 times overall whenever they take command of the glass at both ends of the floor.  

A happy circumstance of being a good rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that you’re able to score a number of easy baskets. The Bulls, in particular, have done well in this aspect as they come into this evening leading the NBA in second-chance scoring at 16.2 per game while the Hawks are 6th at 14.1.

Since the Bulls are not a particularly good outside shooting team, ranking near the bottom of the league at 27th in hitting on only 43.4% of their shot attempts, their being able to put points on the board via second-helpers has helped push them into the win column in 16 of their 21 victories.

The Hawks, however, are an extremely tough match up for Chicago, as they are quick and athletic and are very unselfish with the ball, doling out an average of 24 assists each game.

In fact Atlanta has handed out 20 or more assists 34 times this season, 25 or more assists 21 times, and 30 or more assists four times. On the whole, they are recording assists on 62.2% of their made shots, which is an incredibly high percentage and makes them one of the league’s top offensive teams. Atlanta also loves to turn up the heat defensively as they currently are third in the NBA in steals (8.7) and fourth in forcing turnovers (15.5). Thus the Bulls clearly have their hands full this evening.

Offensively, Chicago has proven to be at their most effective when they persistently look to push the ball up the floor and keep it hopping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For Chicago’s offense to click, the ball has to skip freely and not end up glued onto anyone’s hands for too long. Every Chicago player on the floor needs to stay active and fully engaged.

What the Hawks do tremendously well on offense, and what the Bulls truly need to emulate is to unfailingly spread out and space the floor while at the same time look for opportunities to attack the rim, forcing the opponent’s defense to scramble and foul. As a team, the Bulls have done a terrific job of getting to the free throw line this season, as they’ve outscored opponents 838-609 at the charity stripe, which translates to a +229 extra points.

Jimmy Butler, in particular, has done an amazing job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is the three-time All-Star and most recent Olympic Gold Medalist averaging a career-best 24.8 points, but he is 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.4), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.7), and is converting at a career-best 86.6% from the stripe.

In short, Chicago’s task is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and never relax. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls have play with a chip on their collective shoulders and be tenacious in every phase of the game. They have to wrestle control of the boards — at both ends of the floor. They have to hustle back on defense and always be ready to jump the passing lanes in order to disrupt Atlanta’s offensive flow. They need to constantly stay glued to their man and never lose sight of the ball, especially so when it is being passed from one side to the other in search for an open sniper stationed along the arc. The Bulls also need to consistently fight through picks and also be willing to commit a hard foul every now and then.

Simply put, Chicago has to get after it and stay after it all night long.

- Anthony Hyde