After a week away from the hardwood thanks to the NBA's annual All-Star Game the Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets tip-off the back half of the 2019-20 season this evening at the United Center. Tonight's contest will be the fourth and final meeting between the two this season, with Charlotte holding a 2-1 edge.
Chicago is hoping to find a way to get back on its feet after closing the opening half of the season on a six-game losing streak. Charlotte, on the other hand, came out on top in its last two before after winning just once in their previous 14. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the time away won't yield the return of a couple of key players in Otto Porter Jr. (fractured foot) and Wendell Carter Jr. (high ankle sprain) this evening. Both are very close to suiting up, just not tonight.
Injuries has literally crushed Chicago's hopes of becoming a legitimate playoff team. So far Porter Jr. has only been able to play nine times, while Carter Jr. hasn't played since January 6th, missing the last 18 games. On top of that, fellow starter Lauri Markkanen (pelvic stress symptoms) went down almost a month ago and has missed nine in a row (and counting), while Kris Dunn suffered a serious knee injury four games ago and might not return at all. And if that ain't enough, the team announced yesterday Denzel Valentine (strained hamstring) and Chandler Hutchison (shoulder) will likely end up in street clothes sitting at the end of the bench tonight as well.
As for Charlotte, as mentioned above, they're riding a two-game winning streak after defeating Detroit and Minnesota before the All-Star break. And although they come in sporting an 18-36 record, there are some positives taking place in the Queen City. Reserve guard Malik Monk has been coming on of late, averaging a sturdy 17.0 points per game off the bench during February. Second year swingman Miles Bridges earned MVP honors in the Rising Stars game over All-Star Weekend, and Devonte' Graham is a strong candidate to win the league's Most Improved Player Award, as he's averaging 18.1 points and 7.8 assists while shooting 37.4% from long distance this season after barely getting to play at all last year.
For Chicago to stop the bleeding they're going to have to take the floor focused and determined, delivering a hardnosed, blue collar effort. Offensively, they must play fast, yet also under control. The ball must be freely shared, crisply skipping from player-to-player and from side-to-side to find open outside looks at the rim and driving lanes to basket. Everyone must become engaged in the action throughout the game. It's vital the ball does not wind up stuck in just one player's hands while everyone else stands around and watches. A free-flowing, unselfish rhythm, where every player moves in and out of the paint and around the arc, communicating and working together must take place.
Defensively, Chicago must not shy away from imposing its will with an uncompromising and dogged effort. The Bulls must go hard after every rebound, and dive for every loose ball, while also sticking to their assigned man and escape the trap of constantly fouling.
As a collective unit, Chicago must be steadfast, outworking and outexecuting Charlotte in every conceivable way.