Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hornets (01.22.21)

The Chicago Bulls visit Buzz City tonight for the first time to take on the Charlotte Hornets, tipping-off a busy stretch of three games in four days. They'll be home tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. to face the LA Lakers, and again on Monday at the United Center to meet the Boston Celtics, also an hour later than usual at 8:00 p.m.

Chicago hasn't played since defeating Houston at the United Center last Monday night, 125-120. Likewise, Charlotte hasn't taken the court since last Saturday, a 116-113 road loss to the Toronto Raptors. They were supposed to play Washington on Wednesday, but the game was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns with the Wizards.

The Bulls come into tonight looking for their third win in a row after knocking off the aforementioned Houston Rockets, and sweeping the season series against the Dallas Mavericks the day before in Big D. Over their last dozen games, Chicago is 6-6, with four of those losses (at Sacramento, at Lakers, at Clippers and at OKC) at a combined 11 points.

Offensively, the Bulls have been one of the NBA's top squads, averaging 117.4 points on 47.8% shooting from the floor, 38.5% from beyond the arc, as well as 80.5% from the free throw line. But defensively, they've been far too easy-going, allowing a whopping 120 points on the same 47.8% shooting overall from the field.

To further demonstrate just how good the Bulls have been offensively, they come into tonight having scored 115 or more points in six straight games, the second-longest streak in franchise history (the all-time mark is seven accomplished back in February 1970). Over their last four games, Chicago has connected on 51.0% (176/345) from the field, and 44.3% (66/149) from behind the 3-point arc.

Zach LaVine leads the team in scoring with 27.4 points, good for 5th in the league. Forward Lauri Markkanen is the team's second leading scorer at 18.9 points and is also second in rebounding at 7.1 per game. Playmaker Coby White is the team's third scoring option, producing 15.9 points, and dishing 5.9 assists.

If the Bulls hope to become a legitimate playoff contender this season, one key aspect of their game that must improve is taking care of the ball, as they rank 29th out of 30 teams in committing 18.1 turnovers a game. Growing pains for a young team or not, that simply cannot continue.

In order for Chicago to succeed they need to continue focusing on freely sharing the ball, striving to keep everyone involved in the flow and action of the game, which in turn will force opponents to burn extra energy on defense. Swift, smart passing will also help to open driving lanes to the basket and generate uncontested shots from outside and around the arc.

The Bulls must play fast, but at the same time gain some consistency with the ball. They can't afford to slow down and watch one of their teammates attempt to go one-on-five. Constant player and ball movement, slicing in and out of the paint, will get the team into a free-flowing offensive groove and force the opponent onto its heels.

A primary key for the Bulls will be to continue communicating and trusting one another at both ends of the floor. Each and every game, Chicago must put on their hardhat and produce a gritty effort, especially on the boards and down in the paint. Tonight, will be a tough challenge, as starting center Wendell Carter Jr. has been ruled out with a leg injury. The Bulls will most likely need backup pivotman Daniel Gafford to log more time than usual on the floor and provide muscle on the glass as well as continue to defend the rim as if his dinner depends on it. Although he's showed flashes here and there, Gafford really hasn't grabbed a lot of rebounds, although he's been a terrific rim defender by blocking and changing shots near the cup. Chances are the Bulls will slide Markkanen to center and play veterans Thad Young and Otto Porter more minutes at power forward.

Some possible good news for the Bulls tonight could be the return of both Tomáš Satoranský and Chandler Hutchison, each of whom have been on the shelf for the last 10 games due to health and safety protocols. Satoranský's absence has hurt the most, as he provides a steady and savvy hand at the wheel behind starting point guard Coby White. Hopefully some of the Bulls' turnover issues will lessen with "Sato" back in action.

Matchup wise, Charlotte's a very interesting team, as they are also at their best when playing fast and attacking the basket.

On the season, the Hornets are 23rd in the league in scoring at 107.6 points per game. They're also 13th in rebounding with 44.8 and lead the league at 28.7 assists. Defensively, they've been pretty solid, as they're 9th in scoring defense, allowing just 108.1 points a night.

Gordon Hayward puts up a team-leading 22.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and four assists per contest, while guard Terry Rozier is second at 19.5 points per game. Rookie sensation LaMelo Ball chips in 12.4 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while P.J. Washington (11.9 points, 6.1 rebounds) and Devonte' Graham (11.6 points, 6.5 assists) each average double figures. Bismack Biyombo, Miles Bridges, Caleb Martin, Jalen McDaniels, and Cody Martin are also key rotation players for the Hornets. Center Cody Zeller might also be a factor tonight as he returns to action after suffering a broken thumb in the opener against Cleveland. The 6'11" former Indiana Hoosier seems to always play well against the Bulls.

If Chicago can keep turnovers under control, collectively battle hard on the glass, as well as relentlessly scrap and claw after every loose ball and long rebound, and continue to come together at both ends of the floor, they'll give themselves a really good shot of coming out on top at the end of the night.