Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hornets (05.06.21)

The Bulls are back in action looking to sweep the season series against the Charlotte Hornets this evening while visiting the Queen City. Chicago will return home after the game to meet up with Boston tomorrow at the United Center as the 2020-21 season rapidly winds down. Including tonight, the Bulls have only seven games left on the docket.

Tonight's tip-off from the Spectrum Center in Charlotte is set for 6:00 p.m. CT and will be televised over NBC Sports Chicago as well as broadcast on radio on WSCR AM 670.

Chicago enters tonight having lost four straight, and five of its last six games. The team's playoff hopes are still alive, but barely. Over their last 10 games, the Bulls have gone 4-6, averaging 101.5 points, 43.4 rebounds, 27.7 assists, 6.6 steals and 3.3 blocks per game while shooting 46.8% from the field. Bulls opponents, on the other hand, have averaged 104.7 points on 46.9% shooting.

In their last outing, the Bulls tipped off against one of the best teams in the league this season, the Philadelphia 76ers, and lost 106-94 at the United Center.

The Sixers got out of the gates fast, jumping to a 14-point lead after one quarter and stretched their advantage to 17 at the half, 60-43. Philly continued to roll in the third, sprinting ahead at one point by 23 and entered the final frame up 20. But the Bulls suddenly sprang to life with a 24-5 run to draw within a point (88-87) halfway through the fourth quarter. The Sixers responded as title contenders often do, reeling off a 12-4 run of their own to reclaim momentum and coast the rest of the way to victory.

The 76ers finished with five starters in double figures. Tobias Harris led the attack with a team-best 21 points, as Seth Curry added 20. Ben Simmons scored 15 points, Danny Green had 14 and a relatively quiet Joel Embiid produced a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Coby White led Chicago with 23, who played without both Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević for the second straight game. Thaddeus Young added 13 points as Chicago remained 12th in the East.

Charlotte appears headed for the NBA's play-in tournament after falling 2.5-games back of the Boston Celtics for the No. 6 seed in the East. The Hornets knocked off Detroit the other night, 102-99, to run their record to 32-33 overall, good for eighth in the East, setting them up for a prospective play-in matchup against the red-hot Washington Wizards. Meanwhile, the Bulls currently find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs with a 26-39 overall mark.

There is a bit of good news for Chicago entering tonight's contest. The Bulls are likely to regain both their All-Star players, as Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević are expected to play. LaVine has been sidelined for the last 11 games due to the NBA's Health and Safety protocols after testing positive for Covid. He says he's feeling great, and he's passed all the strict league protocols that have been put in place, so hopefully he can provide a much-needed spark down the stretch as the Bulls look to finish the year on a positive note.

Vučević has also been medically cleared to give it a go after missing the last two games with a strained adductor muscle. LaVine brings with him averages of 27.5 points, 5.1 assists, 5.1 rebounds, while shooting 50.6% from the floor and 41.6% from the arc, while Vučević sports similarly impressive marks of 23.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 41.1% shooting from long distance.

Defensively, Chicago will be tested as the Hornets love to run and break games open from behind the 3-point arc.

Charlotte comes in ranking 8th in made threes (900) and 9th in long-distance shooting at 37.6%. In fact, 37.9% of their offense comes from behind the arc, the 5th highest percentage in the game.

Terry Rozier is the primary sniper, as the veteran guard not only leads the team in scoring at 20.3 points, but he's right up there in 3-point attempts at 8.3 and connects at a rate of 39.4%. His fellow backcourt running mate, rookie LaMelo Ball, will also be in action this evening. Ball missed a major chunk of the season with a serious wrist injury but returned to the lineup three games ago and looks in fine form. The other day against Detroit, he scored 23 points to go along with seven rebounds, six assists, two steals across 31 minutes.

So, it's essential this evening that the Bulls do a great job of helping each other out defensively by rotating when needed and boxing out under the rim and staying in front of their assigned man. This also goes hand-in-hand in working to lock down the paint and not allow Charlotte's high-powered backcourt passage to the rim. As a collective unit, the Bulls need to command the paint from the opening tip and force the Hornets out of their comfort zone.

Offensively, the Bulls need to continue to skip the ball from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Swift, relentless passing, coupled with persistent player movement, places pressure on defenses to react, and if pressure persists throughout the game, defenses tend to fall apart and needlessly foul. Free and easy passing also helps to open driving lanes and more often than not, high percentage shots at the rim.

For the Bulls to give themselves a chance to come out on top tonight, they must sport an aggressive attitude, playing with an edge for all 48 minutes of the game. They must commit to laying it all out on the line, and battle at both ends of the floor. They have to remain focused, poised, and dogged. They need to be physical, fighting through screens (not slipping under), and make sure everyone wearing a Charlotte uniform ends up a little bruised by the end of the night.

The Bulls have to carry this mindset throughout tonight's contest, and everyone from here on out, as they need to outhustle and outwork opponents in every way. If they implement these tactics, they'll give themselves a shot of keeping their playoff hopes and aspirations alive for at least another day.