Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Hawks (10.26.17)

Tonight the Bulls are back home to take on the Atlanta Hawks after dropping a tight contest (119-112) to the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. Justin Holiday led the Bulls with 25 points while rookie Lauri Markkanen produced another strong effort, putting 19 points and 8 rebounds on the board. Naturally perennial MVP candidate LeBron James led all scorers with 34 points to go along with 13 assists to quash Chicago’s upset effort.

Atlanta swoops into the Windy City closing out a five game road trip to open the season. The Hawks knocked off Dallas (117-111) in the season opener but have since dropped three straight (at Charlotte, at Brooklyn and at Miami). Atlanta rookie John Collins (6’10, Wake Forest) however is proving to be a highly effective player as he has posted two consecutive double-doubles off the bench, averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 50 percent (11-of-22) from the field.

Offensively, when the Bulls aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it jumping from player-to-player and from side-to-side good things tend to happen. The team’s offensive system kicks into gear whenever the ball is freely shared among all five players. Assist totals and shooting percentages rise dramatically when the ball moves freely about.

However crisp passes and steady movement doesn’t necessarily mean Chicago has to take quick shots. On the contrary, when the Bulls freely share the ball there’s a greater chance that they’ll find open shots from any number of places on the floor.

Look for the Bulls to consistently spread the court offensively, stationing at least three shooters evenly along the three-point arc to draw Atlanta’s defense from the rim, and in return open driving lanes to the basket. Chicago’s point guards, in particular Jerian Grant, Kay Felder and possibly Kris Dunn if he’s cleared to play before tip-off, will then need to go on the attack, tirelessly driving the ball deep into the paint to create chaos. If the Hawks defense attempts to retreat, sliding down low to stop the Bulls attackers from getting to the rim, those guards will need to quickly recognize that and promptly pass the ball out to an open teammate hovering at the bend — and that sniper should not and cannot hesitate to knock down the open jumper.

Another important key for the Bulls will be to keep turnovers in check, preferably to no more than 13 overall. Against the Cavs the other night Chicago played a terrific offensive game. The Bulls kept the ball hopping and produced 28 assists and turned it over just nine times. From the field they shot an impressive 42-of-88 (47.7%) and a blistering 17-of-33 (51.5%) from beyond the arc. Where the team consistently has come up short so far is getting to the free throw line. On the year the Bulls average a league-worst 13.7 free throw attempts a game whereas opponents are getting to the charity stripe 22 times a night.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago’s defense cannot afford mental breakdowns. Simply put, the Bulls can’t repeatedly forget to cover shooters set up along the arc, nor can they lose sight of the ball or fail to rotate over to provide sturdy help-defense. Collectively, they need to reinforce the team’s blue-collar identity and not allow Atlanta opportunities to run free or find open looks at the rim. Every pass and shot the Hawks attempt must be contested in order for the Bulls to come away with a much needed victory.