Keys to the Game: Bulls at Hawks (03.03.19)

This afternoon the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks complete a home-and-home set of weekend games as well as their season series at the United Center. The Bulls won the first match played in Atlanta in late October, 97-85, behind Zach LaVine’s 27 points and 11 rebounds. The Hawks then exacted sweet revenge the next time on January 23rd at the United Center, thumping Chicago, 121-101. Atlanta’s John Collins dominated all over the court, hitting 14-of-16 from the field, including 4-of-4 from downtown, to notch a career-high 35 points. Rookie sensation Trae Young had an awful shooting night (1-for-12), but the first-year playmaker kept his head in the game and found other ways to help, dishing 12 assists and snagging seven rebounds to help Collins lead the Hawks to victory.

Both Atlanta and Chicago have been playing well recently. Young and Collins have been absolutely terrific all season long. In fact Young’s averaging 31.3 points since the All-Star break. He’s connected on at least four treys 12 times, most among rookies. He’s also demonstrated a readiness to attack the basket and make his way to the free throw line, in that he’s getting to the stripe almost five times a game and hitting 81.6% of his attempts. Against Minnesota last week Young went 16-for-17 from the Charity Stripe in leading all scorers with 36 points.

Collins has also been a big-time contributor this season. Since the All-Star break, the 6’10” sophomore is averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds. His 24 double-doubles not only leads his team, but is also the best among the 2017 Draft class.

As for the Bulls, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. have become a prolific trio in their own right. Heading into the weekend LaVine had notched 20 or more points in 12 of his last 16 games, and had scored 20 or more over 40 times this season.

On the year, he leads Chicago in scoring (23.2), and is posting career-highs in rebounds (4.6), assists (4.5), FG% (46.6%) and FT% (85.9%).

However, the sturdiest of all Bulls of late has been second-year forward/center Lauri Markkanen. Entering this weekend the Finnish import has posted 20 or more points in 10 straight contests. He’s also been cleaning up on the glass, grasping double-digit rebounds in 11 of his last 13 games.

In 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.

Otto Porter Jr., who arrived in town from Washington just before the trade deadline, has proven to be a highly reliable third scoring option, notching 17 or more points in seven of eight games with the Bulls.

To keep themselves on a winning path Chicago will need to play smart and aggressive. They have to force Atlanta to burn extra energy, especially on defense, by crisply and freely sharing the ball with one another while relentlessly seeking a crack in the Hawks’ defensive coverage and attack the basket.

Offensively the Bulls have really been on fire, as they’ve been putting up an average of 116 points a game since February 1st.

With regards to the defensive end of the floor, Chicago needs to dish a hearty dose of gritty pressure, especially with regards to Young, and collectively crash the boards to counteract Collins’ opportunities to make an impact on the glass.

Atlanta’s biggest problem this season has been careless play with the ball, in that they are the league’s top turnover squad at 18.1 fumbles per. Young owns incredible court vision and there is no limit to his shooting range, however he is one of the NBA’s biggest fumblers, turning the ball over almost four times a game. Kris Dunn, who is the Bulls top on-ball defender, will be charged to pester Young up-and-down the hardwood all day long.

In short, if the Bulls can keep their poise and selflessly share the ball while also controlling the boards — especially on the defensive glass — they should be able to send their fans home with a smile after the final buzzer blares.