Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hornets (03.13.17)

Yogi Berra, a baseball Hall of Famer once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and although it is starting to get late (after tonight there will only be 15 games left to play), it definitely ain’t over just yet for the Chicago Bulls (31-35) with regards to a playoff berth, as tonight they visit the Charlotte Hornets (29-37) in the Queen City.

This evening’s meeting will be the third and final time these two get together this season, as each has successfully defended its home floor in the previous matchups.

Bulls All-Star, Jimmy Butler, seems to really relish going up against the Hornets this year, as he comes in tonight averaging 39 points in the series, including a 52-point, 12 rebound and three steal eruption on January 2 at the United Center. That night not only was Butler hitting his stride, but Chicago as a team looked awfully formidable, as the Bulls shot 27-of-29 (93.1%) from the free throw line, out-rebounded Charlotte 44-35, including 14-7 on the offensive glass, earning a 15-8 edge in second-chance scoring, while defensively forcing 14 turnovers that spun into 16 fastbreak points. By the time the smoked cleared, the Bulls had posted a solid 118-111 victory.

Both the Bulls and Hornets started this season expecting to make the playoffs, but as things presently stand, it’s highly doubtful both will make the postseason, but what’s more likely is that one of the two could. Chicago currently sits in 10th place in the East, trailing Milwaukee by just 1.5 games for the 8th and final playoff spot. The bad news is the Bulls are in the throes of a season-worst five-game losing streak, while the Bucks are on the upswing having won six-straight. Four of Chicago’s last five losses have been by double-digits, with yesterday’s 100-80 thrashing in Boston — on national TV, no less — particularly troubling as the Bulls missed their first 12 shots and 19 of their first 22 in mustering up just nine points by the end of the first quarter. Chicago went on to trail by as many as 29 points later in the game, as their two best players, Butler and Dwyane Wade combined to score only 13 points on 6-of-22 shooting for the game.

Charlotte, on the other hand, looks to be turning things around of late, although they take to the hardwood this evening coming off a 125-122 overtime home loss to New Orleans over the weekend. Over a four-week period from late January through late February, the Hornets lost 12 of 13 games, however, they’re 5-4 over their last nine and find themselves 11th in the East, two games behind the Bulls and 3.5 behind Milwaukee for the 8th and final playoff ticket.

Key traits that helped Chicago compete and made them a legitimate playoff contender earlier this season seem to have been lost or forgotten.

At no time have the Bulls ever been a good outside shooting team. In fact, they currently rank 29th out of 30 teams in shooting, hitting just 43.9% from the field. However the recipe that worked so well earlier was their capacity to rebound, especially on the offensive window, and their ability to get to the free-throw line. But during this recent, awful stretch, Chicago’s utter lack of second-chance scoring and free throws has put them in a tailspin.

While they still rank 2nd in the league in second-chance scoring (15.3 per) coming into tonight’s contest, the Bulls have allowed opponents to outscore them 71-66 over the last five games. Now couple this troubling trend with the fact that they normally take an average of 23.5 free throw attempts a night, but over their last three have only made their way to the charity stripe 9, 12 and 11 times … it’s no wonder they haven’t had a lot of fun of late.

In order for the Bulls to get back on track they undoubtedly need to get back to doing what they do best — which is to hit the boards hard from the opening moments of the game. They need to reestablish a dominance somewhere, and being a hardnosed rebounding team would be a perfect place to start.

The next step would be to aggressively push the ball up the floor and persistently attacked the rim. Whenever the Bulls slow things down, their offense spits and sputters. The ball no longer hops from player-to-player or from side-to-side, but instead ends up stuck in someone’s hands while everyone stands around and watches. Chicago’s offensive game plan morphs into isolation mode, where far too many one-on-one battles ensue, turnovers skyrocket, assist numbers and shooting percentages tumble. Thus collectively, the Bulls will need to step on the gas tonight. It’s vital that they look to attack the open floor as often as possible. When they hit the floor with an aggressive mindset, opponents oftentimes have had a very difficult time slowing them down.

Defensively, Chicago must do a far better job of communicating, of knowing where the ball is and where everyone is on the floor. If they fail to corral a missed shot, they have to hustle back to the other end of the floor, and also be willing to forcefully shut down all lanes to the basket. The Bulls simply can’t afford a rash of mental breakdowns, such as forgetting to rotate to provide quality help-defense down in the paint. They need to begin to trust each other again.

Hornets guard, Kemba Walker, is a high-end, cold-blooded, All-Star who will beat you on the drive and also stick it to you from beyond the arc. The 6’1” sparkplug is averaging 27.1 points and 4.1 3s while shooting 45.2% from beyond the arc since the All-Star break. He’s already knocked-down career-high 191 three-pointers this season, which is second best in the East, sixth most in the entire league. Don’t be surprised if you see Jimmy Butler shadowing Walker whenever Charlotte looks to buzz the iron.

Much like Chicago, Charlotte also has done an outstanding job this season of making their way to the line and cashing in. Entering tonight, they lead the NBA in free-throw shooting, hitting 81.5% from the stripe, while the Bulls rank 7th with a 79.7% make rate. So another key for the Bulls will be to contest every Hornets shot without fouling and allowing them to add free points from the charity stripe. 

To sum everything up, if the Bulls can come out quickly and establish a hard-nosed tone, and aggressively attack the rim while successfully defending the arc and the paint, while staying focused, determined and poised, they will give themselves a chance of coming out on top and earning a much needed, confidence-building victory.

— Anthony Hyde