Tonight the Chicago Bulls (17-45) and the Atlanta Hawks (21-41) tip-off a weekend home-and-home series in downtown Atlanta at State Farm Arena. This will be the second and final time the two meet down South, but the third occasion overall, with each team winning on the road.
In the first get-together on October 27th, Zach LaVine's 27 points and 11 rebounds led the Bulls to a 97-85 victory. Then in a rematch on January 23rd played in the Windy City, John Collins recorded a season-high 35 points to propel the Hawks to a 121-101 victory.
Sunday afternoon the Bulls and Hawks will close the book on the season series back at the United Center.
Both Atlanta and Chicago have been playing well of late. The Hawks will take the floor tonight having won two of its last three, while the Bulls have come out on top in four of their last five.
Atlanta rookie Trae Young and second-year big man John Collins have been absolutely terrific this season. Young has produced back-to-back 36-point games, doing so in Houston on this past Monday and then again in the Hawks' 131-123 overtime win against Minnesota on Wednesday. In fact Young's posted 30 or more points in three of Atlanta's last four games and is averaging 31.3 points since the All-Star break.
Young's confidence to inflict damage from deep has continued to rise as well. He's connected on at least four treys in 12 games, the most among rookies. He's also demonstrated an enthusiasm to attack the rim and make his way to the free throw line. Against Minnesota the other night he cashed 16 of 17 from the charity stripe.
Collins also had a big night with 34 points against the Timberwolves. Since the All-Star break, the 6'10” sophomore power forward is averaging 23.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. His 24 double-doubles not only tops Atlanta, and also leads his entire 2017 Draft class.
As for the Bulls, Atlanta has had a tough time containing LaVine this season. The veteran 6'5” high-flying guard has put up 27 and 23 points, respectively against them in the first two contests. But the Hawks aren't the only ones having trouble slowing him down as LaVine went for 30 against Memphis the other night to help Chicago sweep the Grizzlies. LaVine has notched 20 or more points in 12 of his last 16, and has now hit 20+ 40 times this season.
For the year, LaVine leads the Bulls in scoring (23.2), while also posting career-highs in rebounds (4.6), assists (4.5), FG% (46.6%) and FT% (85.9%).
However, the hottest Bull of late has been second-year forward/center Lauri Markkanen. The 7'0” sophomore went for 22 points against Memphis the other night, giving him 10 straight games of 20+ points scored. He's also been a terror on the glass, snagging double-digit rebounds in 11 of his last 13 games.
For the month of February, Markkanen averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 48.6% from the floor. On the season, his numbers are equally impressive at 19.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, shooting 44.3% overall, 37.6% from distance and 87.8% from the free throw line.
Another Bull to keep an eye on this weekend is the newly acquired Otto Porter Jr. In Chicago's last game prior to the All-Star break, Porter Jr. shot lights out, going 16-for-20 from the field in recording a career-best 37 points. The 6'8” forward who arrived from Washington the night before the trade deadline, has posted 17+ points in seven of eight games with the Bulls. In that span, he's averaging 18.1 points while shooting 55.1% from the field, and 51.5% from behind the arc in 32 minutes.
To keep themselves on track tonight the Bulls will again have to play a smart and aggressive game. Offensively, they need to make Atlanta expend extra defensive energy by running them into a steady stream of sturdy screens while freely sharing the ball and be willing to attack the basket whenever an opportunity presents.
Chicago's offense has truly kicked into gear over the last month, as the team averaged 116 points per game in February. They were one of only four teams in the East and 11 league-wide to achieve that mark. What makes that stat even more notable is the fact that the Bulls could only muster 95.6 points per game in December.
With regards to what needs to happen on the defensive end of the floor, the Bulls will need to apply hardnosed defensive pressure on Young, and collectively look to crash the boards to help neutralize Collins on the glass.
Atlanta's primary problem this season has been sloppy play with the ball, in that they lead the league in committing the most turnovers (18.1). Young is an exciting player with incredible court vision and no boundary to his shooting range. As mentioned earlier, he's been lighting up the scoreboard of late, and on the season averaging 17.8 points and 7.7 assists. However, he's also committing 3.9 turnovers a game, third most in the NBA. Thus look for Kris Dunn to shadow and pester Young all night long. If there is anyone on the Bulls' roster who can lock him down, it's Dunn, who is by far Chicago's best on-ball defender.
If the Bulls can continue to play unselfishly on offense while also controlling the boards at both ends of the floor and consistently get out on the break to post easy scores and attack the rim at every opportunity, they should come out on top at the end of the night.