Tonight the Bulls (11-36) and the Atlanta Hawks (14-32) meet for the second time (the first at the United Center) this season. Chicago won the initial powwow in Atlanta, 97-85, behind Zach LaVine's double-double of 27 points and 11 rebounds, and Jabari Parker's 18 points off the bench.
Defensively, the Bulls harassed the Hawks into 22 turnovers, which led to 16 fastbreak points. The victory was Chicago's fifth win in a row over Atlanta. After this evening's contest the teams play will meet again on March 1st in Atlanta and close out the series two days later (March 3rd) back here at the United Center.
The Hawks arrive in town somewhat dazed after getting whacked by the Orlando Magic, 122-103, Monday in Atlanta. The Magic used a 13-2 run during the second quarter to take command as Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier ended up posting 29 points apiece for Orlando. Starting center Dewayne Dedmon had a strong outing with 24 points and added nine rebounds and an assist in 27 minutes, while teammate John Collins notched his 19th double-double with 14 points and 10 boards for the Hawks.
Tonight's contest begins a lengthy, seven-game road trip for Atlanta who won't return home until February 7th. In the meantime, besides the Bulls this evening, they'll visit Portland, Los Angeles (Clippers), Sacramento, Utah, Phoenix and Washington, DC.
As for Chicago, tonight they go for two wins in a row after taking down the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road Monday afternoon, 104-88. LaVine, again, led the way with 25 points as the Bulls never trailed in snapping an ugly 10-game losing streak.
Uncharacteristically Chicago connected on 15-of-29 trey attempts to run away with the game. Bobby Portis came off the Bulls' bench and contributed 15 points while Lauri Markkanen added 13. All told, 11 Chicagoans left a mark in the scorebook, with five reaching double-figures in scoring.
To keep themselves on track tonight the Bulls need to play a smart and aggressive game. Offensively, they have to force Atlanta expend extra energy on defense by running them into a steady stream of screens while also freely sharing the ball with one another and be willing to attack the basket whenever an opportunity presents.
Chicago's offense has finally begun to click of late as they've posted 100-plus points in nine straight games, the team's longest streak over its last three seasons. LaVine has been nothing but spectacular in posting career-highs of 22.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a night. In fact he's scored 20+ points in eight of his last 13 outings and has 30 games of 20 or more points scored on the year.
Second year forward Lauri Markkanen is also playing well, chipping in 17 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. The seven-foot Finn has reached double-figures in scoring in 14 of his last 15 games, including knocking in 16 treys over his last five games.
As a team, Chicago will need to continue to step-up its defensive pressure and crash the boards hard by going all out after every missed shot and loose ball. Recently the Bulls have held opponents under 50 rebounds in 16 of their last 20, and on Monday they out boarded the Cavs 50-38, and outscored them 14-4 in transition.
Atlanta's primary problem this season has been sloppy play with the ball, as they average 18.8 turnovers, the worst in the league. Rookie point guard Trae Young is an exciting player with incredible vision and seemingly no boundaries to his shooting range. He's currently generating 16.1 points and 7.2 assists, but he's also committing 4.1 turnovers. Look for Kris Dunn to shadow and pester Young all over the floor tonight. If there is anyone on Chicago who can shut him down it is Dunn, who is by far the Bulls' best on-ball defender.
The aforementioned John Collins is Atlanta's leading scorer at 18.8 points, as well as his team's leading rebounder at 10.4. Over his last six outings, Collins is averaging 20.5 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 56.8% from the field. Bulls' bigs Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis will need to do what they can keep him under control.
Of the two Atlanta has played far better over the past month, going 8-9 in its last 17 games. During this stretch they have led the league in offensive rebounds and are second in overall rebounding. Much of the credit goes to Collins. Thus from the opening tip until the final buzzer, the Bulls will have to commit to outworking and outhustling the Hawks in every possible way to come away with another victory.