The Bulls are back on the road tonight, stopping in Atlanta to take on the Hawks in the first of three games set between to the two teams this season. Chicago takes the floor looking to bounce back after a 118-112 loss to the Lakers last night, while the Hawks close the books on a home back-to-back set of games hoping to win two in a row after defeating San Antonio 108-100 yesterday.
Last night at the United Center the Bulls lost for the fifth time in their last six outings. Zach LaVine had another strong game for Chicago, posting 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while Wendell Carter Jr. notched his third straight double/double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Rookie Coby White also played well, storming off the bench to contribute 18 points, five rebounds and five assists. Veteran Otto Porter also played his best game of the season so far, hitting 4-of-7 from downtown, adding another 18 points to Chicago's tally.
Early on everything was going the Bulls' way as they ran out to a 19-point lead before halftime. However, LA's LeBron James wasn't willing to go to go quietly into that good night. The five-time league MVP kept attacking, notching his third straight triple/double with 30 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to lead the Lakers to an impressive comeback victory.
As for tonight's contest, Chicago must stay focused for all 48 minutes. So far this season the Bulls have frequently been able to get on a roll and run out to double-digit leads. However, that's when trouble shows up as they somehow lose their way and fade down the stretch.
Defensively Chicago will need to keep close tabs on Atlanta rising star guard Trae Young. The second-year playmaker can literally hit shots from every spot on the court. He's also terrific at finding teammates in open areas so they can score the ball. Last night against the Spurs Young dished 13 assists and scored a game-high 29 points (28 in the second half) to lead the Hawks.
Former Bulls forward Jabari Parker also played well last night in a starter's role for Atlanta, posting 19 points and eight rebounds in 32 minutes. Without a doubt Parker will attempt to duplicate, if not expand upon that effort to stick it to his old team this evening.
Rookies De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were also important factors in helping the Hawks overcome the Spurs last night, posting career-highs of 16 and 12 points, respectively.
One player the Bulls won't need to worry about is center John Collins who received a 25-game suspension the other day for violating the NBA's drug policy. The Hawks 2017 first round draft pick was averaging 17 points and a team-best 8.8 rebounds before getting pinched.
Taking Collins' place in the middle will be a combination of 7'0 veteran Alex Len, 6'11 Damian Jones and 6'9 rookie Bruno Fernando. This three-headed monster will look to provide grit on the glass and change shots around the rim, but none are considered major scoring threats. Chicago's postmen led by Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen will need to neutralize the Hawks' big men on the glass and in the paint by keeping second-chance scoring opportunities to a minimum.
Collectively, the Bulls must begin to truly trust one another defensively, keeping their heads in the game and show a willingness and determination to rotate when needed and have each other's backs throughout the night. As a team Chicago must deny Young freedom to swing the ball from side-to-side without paying a price. The Bulls need to force the Hawks to work for every shot and be hungry enough to fight for every rebound and loose ball.
Offensively, especially when on the road, the Bulls need to come out of the gates fast and never let up. Chicago is most effective when they set a fast and explosive pace. To succeed, the ball must freely be shared, hopping from player-to-player and consistently from one side of the court to the other, getting everyone involved in the action.
The Bulls' offense cannot morph into a walk-the-ball-up-the-court, one-on-one contest. To begin to achieve success, the Bulls need to make the extra pass to uncover driving lanes to the hoop and unobstructed looks at the rim from beyond the arc and stick to that formula throughout the game.
Chicago must also find a way to consistently get to the free throw line — and then make their free throws! The Bulls' margin for error, especially these days, is very small. They simply cannot fail to take advantage of putting free points on the board every night from the charity stripe.