Keys to the Game: Bulls at Heat (05.01.21)

The Bulls are back in action again tonight, this time down in Atlanta to close a back-to-back set of games and complete the season series against the Hawks. Tip-off from State Farm Arena is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT and is being broadcast over NBC Sports Chicago as well as on radio on the Bulls' flagship station, WSCR-AM 670.

Last night Chicago (26-37) lost at home to Milwaukee, 108-98, falling three games behind the Washington Wizards for 10th in the East, a spot in which the winner at the end of the season will be awarded an opportunity to make its way into the playoffs as part of the NBA's play-in tournament. Including tonight's tilt against Atlanta there are just nine games left on the Bulls' schedule.

Realistically, Chicago cannot afford to lose again if they're to make the 2021 postseason. The Bulls come into tonight having lost two in a row and three of its last four. Coby White led the Bulls' charge last night with 21 points, while Nikola Vučević had 17 points and 15 rebounds. However, that was not enough to topple the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Bucks, as overall, Chicago produced a disappointing night at the offensive end, as the team shot only 38% from the field. The Bulls also had a tough night at the free throw line, shooting 14-of-21 from the stripe. Coming into last night, as a team, Chicago had hit 80% of its charity tosses.

The Hawks (34-30) have also been on the skids of late, having lost three in a row, including two straight blowouts at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.

After enduring a 127-83 pounding in the City of Brotherly Love on Wednesday, Atlanta got off to a better start last night, soaring to a 26-23 lead at the end of the opening quarter. But the Sixers found their groove in the second frame, outscoring the Hawks 42-20 to take command and cruised the rest of the night, capturing a 126-104 victory.

On the plus side, Atlanta pivot, Clint Capela, recorded his 42nd double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds, and star guard Trae Young returned after a four-game absence due to a sprained ankle to post a game-high 32 points on 10-of-19 shooting and a perfect 10-of-10 from the charity stripe. However, a balanced Philly attack, headed by Dwight Howard's double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds, followed by Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and All-Star Joel Embiid's 18-point efforts powered the Sixers to another lopsided victory.

Defensively, Chicago has done a really solid job of defending the three-point line this season. The Bulls take the floor ranked No. 3 in the league in allowing opponents just 11.4 made three-pointers a game, and 6th overall in allowing a somewhat ordinary 35.4% opponent make rate from the arc.

Young is Atlanta's most dangerous long-distance sniper (6.4 3FGA / 35.6%), as the man has no boundaries. He can shoot, hit, and make it look easy from as far as 70-feet away, if need be. Other long-distance snipers with the Hawks worthy of close attention include wings Bogdan Bogdanović (7.2 3FGA / 41.9%) and Kevin Huerter (5.7 3FGA / 36.6%), and Danilo Gallinari (5.1 3FGA / 40.6%). Both Bogdanović and Huerter have been listed as questionable for tonight as they're nursing a variety of injuries. Neither played against Philly last night.

Besides defending the three-point arc this evening, Chicago must also clamp down in the paint by not allowing easy passage to the rim. As a collective unit, the Bulls have to take command of the paint right from the opening tip and force the Hawks to adjust on the fly.

As for offense, in order for the Bulls to be effective the ball needs to constantly skip from player-to-player and jump from side-to-side. Quick and relentless passing, as well as persistent player movement, places a great deal of pressure on the defense to react, and if the pressure continues to build throughout the night, scramble, fall apart and needlessly foul. Free-flowing passing also helps to open driving lanes to the rim, allowing teams to post easy scores with high percentage shots.

In order for the Bulls to give themselves a shot of coming out on top this evening, they must uniformly display a dynamic attitude and play with an edge. As a team, Chicago has to lay it all out on the line by aggressively battling to control the boards at both ends of the floor. By taking command of the defensive glass, Chicago can look to speed the pace by frequently getting into transition and post easy fastbreak points.

The Bulls have to stay focused and determined all game long. They need to be physical, fighting through, and not under screens, and make sure nobody wearing a Hawks jersey is able to break free from a defender, unearth an open route to the hoop or fire uncontested shots from behind the 3-point arc.

In short, to succeed the Bulls have to be aggressive and carry that mindset throughout the entire contest. They have to outhustle and outwork Atlanta in every possible way. If they employ this approach tonight, they'll have a shot of knocking off a talented Eastern Conference foe and keep their playoff hopes alive for another day.