Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Hawks (01.25.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (23-23) are back home to take on the Southeast Division leading Atlanta Hawks (26-19) in the third of four meetings this season. The Hawks easily won each of the earlier contests, both played in Atlanta, the most recent taking place last Friday. Although the final score that night stood 102-93, the Bulls never were a threat, as the Hawks, directed by point guard Dennis Schroder (25 points, 6 assists) and power forward Paul Millsap (14 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks), raced to a 35-13 lead at the end of the opening quarter, then stretched their advantage to 29 points at the half and to 30 by the close of the third. Chicago Head Coach, Fred Hoiberg, then called to the far end of the bench, giving a handful of hungry reserves a chance to show their stuff. Led by Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser, Chicago caught fire, outscoring Atlanta 36-15 over the final 12 minutes to cut the massive deficit to a somewhat respectable number. Yet, the final outcome clearly was never in doubt.

The Hawks have won 11 of their last 14, but despite that success, Atlanta comes to Chicago looking to bounce back tonight after falling at home Monday to the LA Clippers, who were missing All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, 115-105. The story this night was LA going on a 20-7 run to open the second quarter and closing the half with a comfortable 18-point lead. The Hawks made a game of it late, cutting the Clippers’ advantage to single-digits, but LA was able to hold on for the victory. The Clippers won the rebounding battle, 46-40 and outscored the Hawks 19-11 in second-chance points and 38-13 off the bench.

The Bulls, on the other hand, are hoping to add some extra momentum after knocking off the Orlando Magic last night in Florida, 100-92. Dwyane Wade led the charge with 21 points (seven in the fourth quarter), while Jimmy Butler added 20 of his own (six points scored in the fourth).   

So far this season Chicago has often succeeded when they come out of the block fast and aggressive the moment the ball is tipped off. Thus, in order to have a fighting chance this evening against one of the best teams in the East, they will have to show up with a great deal of energy and laser-like focus.

A chief indicator as to how well the Bulls are going to play on any given night is how well they rebound. Chicago currently leads the league in that category, averaging 47.4 per game, while Atlanta is 17th, snaring 43.6 per game. The Bulls also lead the league in offensive boarding, pulling down an impressive 13.4 misses, while the Hawks sit 12th at 10.4.

Yet Chicago cannot afford to take Atlanta lightly when it comes to commanding the glass. Atlanta has grabbed 50-or-more rebound eight times this season and are 7-1 on those occasions. And when they win the battle of the boards all-together, the Hawks are 18-6. Chicago, on the other hand, has grabbed 50-or-more rebounds 14 times and are 11-3, and in total have won 19 games when they take total ownership of the glass.

Since the Bulls usually struggle from the outside, entering tonight 28th in shooting with a mark of 43.4%, it’s imperative they wrestle control the boards, especially on the offensive side of the hardwood. In order to stay competitive and have a chance this evening, Chicago needs to score via second-helpers. The good news is, the Bulls are the NBA’s best when it comes to second-chance scoring, putting up 16 a night. However, Atlanta isn’t too far behind, as they average 13.9 extras.

Over the last few years the Hawks have proven to be an extremely tough matchup, as they’ve won six straight over the Bulls, with the last Chicago victory coming April 15, 2015.

As a team, the Hawks are quick and athletic. Offensively they play a very unselfish band of ball, doling out an average of 24.1 assists each game. Against the Clippers the other night, they dished 28 assists, and have now tallied 25-or-more helpers 22 times this season. They are recording assists on 62.3% of their made shots, which is an incredibly high percentage. Defensively, Atlanta ranks fourth in steals (8.6) and second in forcing turnovers (15.8).

Tonight the Bulls will need to grab the ball off the glass and look to push it up the floor at every opportunity. The Bulls also need to share it freely, keeping it hopping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Every player on the floor needs to be active and fully engaged.

Offensively, what Atlanta does consistently well, and what the Bulls need to imitate more often is spreading out in order to open up the floor while keeping an eye out for opportunities to attack the basket.

So far the Bulls have done a tremendous job of getting to the free throw line, while at the same time, keeping their opponents off the stripe. Coming into tonight’s game, Chicago has drawn 885 fouls but committed just 811 (+74). In turn, the Bulls have shot 1,128 free throws, making 907 (80.7%), while the opposition has made only 864 trips to the charity stripe, making 655 (75.8%), meaning Chicago has attempted 264 more free throws this season and have cashed 252 of those extra tosses. A perfect example of this happened last night in Orlando, where the Bulls finished with a 23-15 edge at the free throw line.

Jimmy Butler, who last week was named a starter for the East in this year’s All-Star Game, has done an incredible job of drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only is Butler sporting a career-best 24.5 scoring average, but he also ranks 3rd in the league in free-throws made (8.3), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.5), while converting a career-best 87.1% from the stripe.

To sum up, Chicago’s primary task is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor tonight. The Bulls have play with passion from the opening tip until the final horn. It’s important they take command of the boards — at both ends of the floor. It’s extremely vital that they never fail to hustle back defensively, especially after a turnover or a lost rebound. They also can’t lose sight of their man, as the Hawks will constantly be in motion and the ball will shared freely.

Simply put, Chicago has to come out focused and determined, and play with a chip on their shoulder in order to overcome a talented and hardnosed foe.  

—    Anthony Hyde