Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hornets (12.23.16)

On the heels of another frustrating loss, the Chicago Bulls hit the road and are back on the hardwood tonight to take on the Charlotte Hornets in the Queen City in the first of three meetings scheduled between the two for the season.

For a time Wednesday it looked as if Chicago was going to continue stampeding whoever dared stand in their way. Riding a wave of momentum after crushing Detroit by 31 points Monday, the Bulls got off to another fast start, handing out eight assists while shooting 15-of-24 (62.5%) from the field in the first quarter en route to 33 points and an 11-point lead over the Washington Wizards. But DC settled down and steadily climbed back into the game, and then kicked it into fourth gear late to run off with a 107-97 victory at the United Center. The loss was Chicago’s fourth in five games, and seventh in their last 10, while Washington’s victory was its third road win in 12 tries.

A major key to this evening’s contest will be Chicago’s ability to stay in front of Charlotte’s heart-and-soul point guard, Kemba Walker, and all-purpose veteran wingman, Nic Batum.

Walker, a fiery and lightning-quick 6’1” former UConn All-American, leads the Hornets in scoring (22.6) and floor burns. Batum, a lanky 6’8” guard/forward from France, is one of only five players in the NBA to average 13 or more points (14.0), seven or more rebounds (7.4) and five or more assists (5.6). Together, they rallied the Hornets in overcoming a 19-point second quarter deficit to beat the Lakers, 117-113, Tuesday in Charlotte. Walker led all scorers with 28 points, and added eight rebounds and 10 assists, while Batum chipped in 23 points, five rebounds and 10 more assists. The victory pushed the Hornets, who currently sit atop the Southeast Division, to 16-13 overall.

Walker is scoring at least 12 points a game in pick-and-rolls, which coming into this evening, is the best clip in the NBA, while Batum has enjoyed an amazing December, totaling 165 points, 94 rebounds and 69 assists over 11 games. Among guards, the Frenchman is also tied for third in the league in most rebounds per game (7.4) and has posted eight double-doubles. Chicago’s backcourt of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo are also among the best rebounding guards in the league, ranking fourth (6.7) and fifth (6.4), respectively.

The Bulls also continue to be the league leaders in rebounding, as they enter tonight ranked 1st with an average of 48 collected caroms per game, and 1st in offensive window cleaning with a mark of 13.3. That robust glass play has led Chicago to also be the NBA’s top ranked second-chance scoring team with a mark of 16.0 points a game.

Monday’s blowout of Detroit and Wednesday’s opening quarter against Washington brought back pleasant memories as to how the Bulls started the season, as they undoubtedly have proven to be at their peak whenever they aggressively push the ball up the floor and persistently attacked the rim. Conversely, whenever the Bulls slow down, their offense spits and sputters. The ball no longer hops from player-to-player or from side-to-side, but instead gets stuck in someone’s hands for long stretches while everyone else stands around and watches. The Bulls attack changes into isolation mode, where far too many one-on-one battles ensue and assist totals shrink, turnovers skyrocket and shooting percentages tumble. Thus for Chicago to get back on track, the Bulls, collectively, need to step on the gas and stay on the gas for the entire game. It is vital that they persistently crash the boards at both ends of the floor, and look to attack the open floor as often as possible. When Chicago establishes a fast and aggressive mindset, opponents often have a very difficult time slowing them down.

Defensively, the Bulls must continue to do a far better job of communicating with each other. Chicago has to untiringly hustle back on defense and also forcefully shut down lanes to the basket. The Bulls simply can’t afford a rash of mental breakdowns where they lose sight of the ball or forget to rotate over to provide help-defense in the paint. Together, they have to believe in and trust each other more while also reinforcing a blue-collar identity. Every pass and shot Charlotte attempts tonight must be strongly contested. Kemba Walker is a high-end, cold-blooded, All-Star player who will beat you on the drive and also stick it to you from beyond the arc. Coming into tonight he has hit 76 threes, which is second most in the Eastern Conference. In 109 games played over the last two seasons, Walker has connected on 258-of-674 (.383) attempts beyond the arc, which translates to 2.4 threes a game. There is no doubt he will look for his shot outside the arc this evening.

Charlotte’s bench has also proven to be lethal this season, as they are notching an impressive 39.2 points a game, which ranks sixth in the league and third in the East. Former Bulls sniper Marco Belinelli leads the charge, averaging 11.4 points, and fellow backup guard Jeremy Lamb contributes 7.9 points. Something to keep in the back of your mind tonight is that whenever Lamb scores 10 or more, the Hornets are 6-2.

If the Bulls can establish a hardnosed tone from the jump, and stick to attacking the rim and aggressively defending the arc and the paint throughout the game, staying focused, determined and poised all through the evening, they will give themselves a better than even chance of coming out on top and earning a much needed, confidence-building victory against a very tough opponent. It certainly isn’t going to get any easier after tonight for the Bulls, as they head to San Antonio after to meet the Spurs on national TV on Christmas Day. — Anthony Hyde