Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Hornets (10.24.18)

The Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets tip-off tonight at the United Center in the first of a back-to-back set of games between the two, as the teams will meet up again Friday down in the Queen City. Charlotte comes to town with a record of 2-2, while Chicago (0-3) is still searching for its first victory.

As if times weren't tough enough for the Bulls, the team learned yesterday morning that starting point guard Kris Dunn will be out of action for the next 4-6 weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee. Dunn suffered the injury during the second quarter the other night in Dallas. His injury strips the Bulls of another important player as fellow starter Lauri Markkanen is also out until mid-November with an elbow injury and key reserve Denzel Valentine is a couple of weeks away from taking the court due to a preseason ankle injury.

With Dunn sidelined for the foreseeable future Chicago will have to look for some combination of Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis and the newly signed Shaquille Harrison to take the reins and direct the offense.

Charlotte comes to town led by veteran point guard Kemba Walker, having won two of its last three games. However, the Hornets were blown out by Toronto (127-106) this past Monday night. Walker, however has been on fire since Day 1, posting a 33.0 points per game scoring average, including hitting from long distance 21 out of 45 attempts (46.7%). Keeping him in check, or at least somewhat under control, will have to be at the top of the Bulls list of goals this evening.

Tonight also marks the end of a four game road trip for Charlotte, as the Buzz started strong with a 120-88 stinging of Orlando at the beginning of their trek, followed by a 113-112 squeaker the next night in Miami, before the aforementioned thumping at the hands of the Raptors the other night. An interesting side note to these early games has been the play of Hornets starting center Cody Zeller. The former Indiana Hoosier has been very active in making his presence known in the two Charlotte victories, but has been almost invisible in their two losses, scoring just seven combined points in those contests.

Like Charlotte, the Bulls has been led by their own dynamic scorer in Zach LaVine, who has notched 30 or more points in each of Chicago's three games this season. The only player in franchise history to ever score 30 or more in the first four games of a season is Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, who just happens to be Charlotte's present day owner.

In order for Chicago to get on track they obviously need to do a number of things better than they have so far this season. The last time out in Dallas the Bulls committed an unacceptable 19 turnovers that led to 27 points for the Mavs. Continued carelessness with the ball, including forced passes into tight spaces and poor shot selection, along with a general lack of awareness of where to go and what to do must end.

Defensively the Bulls have to step up their effort by focusing on shutting down driving lanes to the hoop and also aggressively run shooters off the 3-point arc. The Mavericks attempted 47 3s the other night, with 15 makes. Chicago simply can't allow teams to set up and fire away without consequence. Defensive communication has been spotty at best. Too often players are caught flatfooted and are slow to react when it is time to rotate and provide help defense. Another chronic defensive breakdown has been defenders losing sight of their assigned men around the arc and under the hoop. Everyone on defense has to also do a better job of calling out impending screens and blow-byes.

As for offense, the Bulls are going to need to spread out in order to open up the middle of the floor, stationing at least three shooters apart along the 3-point arc in order to draw Charlotte's defense away from the basket. It is vital Chicago freely also share the ball with one another, keeping everyone involved in the action. For the offense to run smoothly the ball needs to jump from player-to-player, hopping from side-to-side to make Charlotte chase and expend energy. The Bulls are also going to have to take advantage of every opportunity to aggressively attack the rim by driving the ball deep into the paint.

Lastly, someone other than LaVine and Jabari Parker is going to have to find their stroke and consistently make their way to the free throw line. In all honesty Chicago can't ask much more of LaVine, as he's been outstanding in every phase of the game offensively. He's been remarkably efficient, taking good shots, knocking down 3s (9-of-20, 45%) and getting to the charity stripe and converting (20-of-24, 83.3%) with regularity. Parker has also been better than solid coming off the bench, averaging 16 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 47% from the field and 50% from behind the arc. With Dunn, Markkanen and Valentine unable to play, the Bulls are going to need a few more players to step up and join the party.