Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Hawks (12.23.20)

The Chicago Bulls open its 55th NBA season at home tonight against the Atlanta Hawks. Fans can catch all the action live on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670 / TUDN, Univision 1200AM), tipping-off at 7:00 PM.

After tonight's contest, the Bulls will take on the Indiana Pacers and the Golden State Warriors, respectively, back-to-back this Saturday and Sunday night, also at the United Center. Both weekend games tip-off at 7:00 PM and are also on TV and radio.

Chicago and Atlanta come into this new season sporting high expectations. Although the Bulls brought back most of the same roster from last year, there's a strong sense of purpose and a new energy swirling about with this team. Major leadership changes were made on the basketball operations side of the organization since the Bulls last played a meaningful game. One of the major new acquisitions makes his Windy City debut tonight manning the No. 1 seat on the bench, Head Coach Billy Donovan.

For the past five seasons Donovan instructed the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the NBA's most successful franchises. Under Donovan's leadership, the Thunder made the playoffs every season. As soon as news broke that he and the Thunder had decided to go their separate ways after Donovan's contract had expired, new Bulls Executive VP – Basketball Operations, Artūras Karnišovas, moved quickly to convince Donovan he was the perfect coach to lead the Bulls back to prominence. After a successful 3-1 preseason, Bulls fans' faith in Karnišovas and Donovan has grown stronger.

One of the keys to having a successful season for Chicago will be the continued growth and maturation of core players Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

Top draft pick, Patrick Williams, is also going to play a major role this season. The 6'8" rookie forward from Florida State quickly established a favorable impression on fans and teammates alike during the preseason. The game seems to slow down and come natural to him. But Williams also just turned 19-years old in August. He's sure to experience rough patches from time to time. The key for Williams, and for the Bulls, will be how quickly he learns from and puts those rough moments in his rearview mirror and bounces back.

As for the Atlanta Hawks, they take the floor tonight with nine new players who weren't on their roster last year: Bogdan Bogdanović, Danilo Gallinari, Solomon Hill, Nathan Knight, Skylar Mays, Onyeka Okongwu, and former Bulls Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell.

With the acquisitions of Bogdanović and Gallinari, the Hawks are the only team this season to feature two players who shot at least five

"catch-and-shoot" 3-pointers per game and knocked down at least 40% of those attempts last year, per NBA.com. Gallinari attempted 5.5

catch-and-shoot triples and made 41.8 %, while Bogdanović fired 5.0 catch-and-shoot jumpers from beyond the arc and converted 40.7%.

But the brightest shining star for the Hawks is third-year playmaker Trae Young, who last season averaged 29.6 points, 9.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 steal in 35.3 minutes a night (.437 FG%, .361 3FG%, .860 FT%). Young started for the Eastern Conference in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game and recorded the only double-double in the contest, posting 10 points and a game-high 10 assists in 16 minutes.

Last season Young ranked 2nd in the NBA in assists (1st in the Eastern

Conference), and 4th in in the league in scoring (2nd in the East). Young's shooting range knows no bounds. He's just as likely to shoot from as far away as Schaumburg, as he is to drive through the paint for a layup.

In order for Chicago to come out on top this evening, defensively they must come in focused and determined. The Bulls must pay close attention to the 3-point arc by persistently running shooters off the line, while also communicating and helping each other shut down driving lanes to the hoop, denying Atlanta opportunities to post easy scores at the rim.

Atlanta's offense is geared towards swinging the ball around the arc at breakneck speed and firing away at the first open look they see. Young, however, will attack the basket every now and then, but Bogdanović and Gallinari, as well as their other snipers (Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Solomon Hill) prefer to mainly live outside.

The Hawks do have a couple of effective inside weapons in center Clint Capela and power forward John Collins. Collins will step outside to shoot like everyone else on the team, but he's also capable of taking command of a game down low at either end of the floor. Capela, on the other hand, is not much of a threat from outside the paint, but he is very active under the basket, cleaning up his teammates' missed shots and/or rolling to the rim for alley-oops. Chicago's bigs, in particular Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and most likely Daniel Gafford and Patrick Williams, will need to keep close tabs on Capela knifing through the paint in search of put-backs, and Collins looking to set up shop down low. If the Bulls are to give themselves a fighting chance this evening, Carter Jr. and crew, will have to step up defensively to keep Capela and Collins in check and off the glass as much as possible.

Defensively, Atlanta has a long way to go to become respectable. Very often during the preseason opponents easily made their way to the basket, finding little to no resistance. Chicago will need to exploit that weakness at every opportunity. The Bulls also must freely share the ball with one another, skipping it from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the Hawks to expend extra energy on defense. The ball cannot stick in any one players' hands for too long. The ball must quickly hop in search of an open shooter and/or willing attacker going to the rim. Constant ball and player movement is paramount to achieving success.

Both teams are at their best when they assume command of the boards and relentlessly look to run out on the break to post easy scores in transition. A primary key to starting the season off on the right foot tonight will be which team controls the boards and sparks an exciting and entertaining pace of fast-breaks and unselfish, pinpoint passing.

Attention to detail, and a gritty, focused team effort – performed at both ends of the floor – from the Bulls should prove to be a winning recipe this evening.