Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hawks (04.09.21)

The Bulls are in action again tonight, this time in Atlanta to close a back-to-back set of games. Tip-off from State Farm Arena is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago and WSCR-AM 670.

Last night the Bulls took down the Toronto Raptors, 122-113, in Tampa, FL (Toronto's temporary home this season). It was Chicago's second straight victory over the Raptors after losing 12 in a row to them, and it was their third straight win in this current stretch of seven games in 10 days, five taking place on the road.

All-Stars Nikola Vučević and Zach LaVine each scored 22 points to lead Chicago. LaVine also dished a season-best 13 assists (LaVine's most with Chicago, and second-best career total), while Lauri Markkanen and Coby White contributed 18 and 15 points, respectively, off the bench. Markkanen shot a blistering 8 of 10 overall, including two of four from deep in just 18 minutes of action.

Crafting a perfect example of a team effort, seven of the nine Bulls who saw the floor reached double figures in scoring, including newcomer Daniel Theis. The 6'8 pivot acquired from Boston at the trade deadline delivered his first double-double with Chicago and fourth this season, with 15 points and 10 rebounds off the pine. Theis' night also marked the third time this year a Bulls reserve has notched a double-double.

As a team, Chicago hit 47 of 87 shots (54.0%) from the field, including 12 of 30 (40.0%) from downtown. With LaVine leading the way, the Bulls dished 35 assists, and they also out-rebounded the Raptors 49-41, and outscored them in the paint, 64-56.

Atlanta comes in tonight looking to bounce back after seeing a three-game winning streak snapped in loud fashion against Memphis on Wednesday, 131-113.

The Hawks jumped out to an early 14-point lead in the opening quarter only to see their advantage trimmed to five by the end of the stanza. Memphis continued to roll in the second, winning the quarter, 38-30, to take a three-point lead at halftime. The Grizzlies broke the game open in the third, outscoring the Hawks, 43-23, to turn the game into a rout.

Atlanta ended the night shooting a somewhat respectable 44.6% from the field, including 10 of 28 from three-point range, but Memphis knocked down 53.9% of their shots overall. Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks with 24 points and six rebounds in the loss, while Trae Young finished with 14 points and 11 assists.

The Hawks did play shorthanded, as starters Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari were new additions to Atlanta's already lengthy injury list that included De'Andre Hunter and John Collins. All-in-all, Atlanta was without four of their top five scorers for the season. Only Young remained from that top-five list.

As for tonight, both Capela and Gallinari are listed as questionable, but Collins, Hunter, Cam Reddish, and former Bulls guard Kris Dunn have been ruled out.

Injuries or not, the most important key for the Bulls every game is to come in focused and locked in at both ends of the floor.

Defensively, Chicago has done an excellent job of defending the three-point line this season. The Bulls rank No. 2 in the league in holding opponents to just 11.3 three-pointers a game, and they're 6th overall in allowing a somewhat ordinary 35.0% make rate from deep.

Young is Atlanta's most dangerous long-distance sniper, in that the man has no boundaries. He can shoot, hit, and make it look easy from 70-feet away, if need be. LaVine will likely draw the defensive assignment right away but look for Troy Brown Jr. to come off the bench and lock in on Young as the game progresses. Brown Jr. certainly won't play in front of LaVine, but don't be shocked seeing them on the floor together, especially if Young is having a special night.

Other Hawk long-distance marksmen worthy of close attention include the aforementioned Bogdanovic (6.2 3FGA / 40.1%) and Kevin Huerter (5.6 3FGA / 36.5%), and if healthy enough to play, Gallinari (5.2 3FGA / 40.3%).

On top of guarding the three-point arc, Chicago must also tighten up defensively by refusing easy passage through the paint, denying Atlanta scoring chances by put-backs or opportunities to run out on the break. As a collective unit, the Bulls must capture the paint and force the Hawks to live outside and contest every shot they take.

As for offense, for the Bulls to be effective the ball has to freely skip from player-to-player. Quick and relentless passing compels defenses to overreact, scramble and foul. Free-flowing passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim for easy scores and high percentage shots in the paint.

With the recent addition of Nikola Vučević, the Bulls have adjusted their offensive scheme of late by looking to punch the ball down low more often these days compared to relying on perimeter shooting.

Vučević gives Chicago a very effective and efficient scoring weapon near the hoop. Besides owning a deft shooting touch near the iron, Vučević is also capable of stepping outside and knocking down threes from behind the arc. His ability to do this makes it impossible for defenses to afford to keep their big men under the basket to protect the rim.

Once Vučević moves outside and his defender follows, the middle opens for Chicago's ballhandlers, in particular, Zach LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Thaddeus Young, to slash to the hoop for easy layups and earn trips to the free throw line.

This is another reason why the Bulls must play unselfishly. They have to constantly skip the ball fast and free among themselves. Getting (and keeping) everyone involved in the action is absolutely vital to attaining success. They have done an outstanding job of doing exactly this over their last seven games. Not only did Chicago have 35 assists last night, but over their last seven games they've handed out no less than 26 helpers per contest.

To sum it all up, to be successful the Bulls must play with an aggressive attitude and carry that boldness throughout the entire contest, outhustling and outworking each opponent in every way possible. That includes battling through every screen, going hard after every rebound and diving onto the floor for every loose ball. If they achieve these goals tonight, they'll give themselves a real shot of winning their fourth straight game against an important Eastern Conference foe.

This evening marks the 51st game out of a total of 72 for the year. Therefore, every contest from here on out has real playoff implications.