A night after losing handily to the shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks in Atlanta, he Hawks will travel to Chicago to take on the 12-20 Bulls. Saturday will be the third time this season that Atlanta has played the Bulls on the second night of a back-to-back, and in each of the first two games the Hawks fell well short of victory.
In early November the Bulls emphatically snapped out of a slump with a 20-point victory, then trounced the Hawks again in Chicago just over a month later. As much as anything, Saturday will be a test of Atlanta's identity and resolve. The Bulls are the better team, but far from unbeatable and certainly not the caliber of team by which the Hawks should get blown out three times.
Reddish Starts In Place of Young
With Trae Young out with a sprained right ankle, the Hawks will start Cam Reddish in the backcourt with Kevin Huerter on Saturday. Lloyd Pierce will keep De'Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Bruno Fernando in the starting five.
While Reddish will technically start at "point guard," most of spare ball-handling duty will fall to Huerter, who has effectively played backup point guard for the Hawks since returning from a sprained shoulder earlier this month. He can help drive the offense as both a passer and a shooter, and is a far better decision-maker than Reddish. Atlanta has been waiting for Huerter to have an explosive game, and Saturday could provide an opportunity for one as he assumes a more prominent role.
Reddish's primary role will be to help facilitate steer possessions off of ball reversals and second-side actions. He has struggled as a decision-maker this season and likely won't be fed more than he can eat offensively.
"It's not for him to do more," Pierce said prior to the game. "I just want Cam to be Cam and [to be] aggressive and continue to grow and make plays."
Defensively, Reddish offers the Hawks far more activity and versatility than Young does, which should help against a larger Bulls backcourt.
Bulls Run Off 14 Straight
After an auspicious start on both ends, Atlanta quickly fell out of sync as the Bulls ran off a 14-0 stretch to take a 10-point lead and force Pierce to call timeout. The Bulls are walling up on the Hawks' shots at the rim and simply beating them down the floor on the other end. Both Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have stepped into wide-open corner 3s before Atlanta could set its defense to locate Chicago's threats.
Len In Quickly For Fernando
Alex Len checked in at the Hawks' first timeout less than five minutes into the game after Bruno Fernando struggled in his first few minutes. It appears as though Pierce is caught between knowing that Fernando needs developmental minutes and the reality that the rookie simply isn't a good NBA player at this stage of his career. Fernando clearly has some sound basketball instincts and a desire to make the right play, but he's slow to see plays unfold and thus looks lost most of the time he's on the floor.
The balance between Len and Fernando (and maybe Damian Jones?) will be worth watching tonight. At the moment, Pierce should go with whichever player cares to pay attention on defense. Bulls lead 25-11 with five minutes to play in the first.
Dunn Pestering Hawks
The Bulls forced five turnovers in the first quarter, thanks in large part to Kris Dunn's energy on defense. Chicago forces the most turnovers in the league, and Dunn is one of the league's most menacing defenders. He'll make a truly special defensive play or two every game, which helps balance out his struggles on the other end of the floor.
The Bulls to play a starting lineup without a conventional point guard, and Dunn's defensive versatility is the skeleton key that makes that alignment work on defense. His strength, smarts, and effort allow him to defend three positions capably -- a real boon given Zach LaVine's shortcomings on the defensive end.
Hunter Expanding His Vision
He already has three assists -- nearly twice his season average and more than he had in the last two games combined -- and has made three impressive cross-court kickout passes to shooters off of hard drives tonight. That's a wrinkle of Hunter's game that doesn't always stand out, and it's encouraging to see him processing the game and making the proper reads. Midway through the second quarter, he made a simple but impressive read to hit John Collins in the pick-and-roll:
Hunter isn't a particularly adroit improviser yet; he tends to have the floor set up for him and plays carefully scripted to suit his needs. But without Trae Young reading and manipulating opposing defenses, Atlanta will need more from its secondary creators, including Hunter. He hasn't had the ball in his hands very often this half, but has been one of the Hawks' best facilitators simply by attacking closeouts and being assertive.
Bulls Fuel Offense In Transition
The Bulls torched Atlanta in the first half, jumping out to a 64-43 lead and a 120.8 offensive rating. Transition has accounted for over a fifth of Chicago's possessions, and the Bulls have scored 1.73 points per possession in those situations. The Hawks, meanwhile, are scoring just 0.75 points per possession on 15 percent frequency. Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have 16 and 15 points, respectively for the Bulls.
John Collins has a game-high 18 points, but has been Atlanta's lone bright spot. The Hawks scored just 81 points per 100 possessions in the first 24 minutes and shot just 20 percent from 3. By contrast, the Bulls went 8-of-15 from deep and 16-of-21 at the rim.
The Hawks must correct their transition defense if they're to have any chance of getting back into this game. The active Bulls have forced 11 turnovers but committed 12 of their own, and yet Atlanta has gotten virtually nothing in transition. The difference is the urgency with which the two teams have gotten back down the floor to compensate for those giveaways.
Len Back In Quickly
As was the case in the first half, Alex Len replaces Bruno Fernando early, this time just over two minutes into the half. Fernando has played all of six minutes tonight and hasn't been particularly effective, and Damian Jones played what would normally be Fernando's second shift in the first half.
You can see what Pierce is going for by starting Fernando, but at this point he should probably just start Len and bring Jones off the bench. Len is by far the best center on the roster and Fernando simply isn't ready to contribute at the NBA level.
Hunter Struggling to Find Shot
I noted Hunter's prescient passing in the first half, and he has been better getting over screens in this game than he has been in weeks. But for the Hawks to win, the rookie also needs to make shots, and lately his looks haven't been falling. He's down to 33.3 percent from 3 on the season, 1-for-3 tonight, and shooting 21 percent from deep in his last seven games.
As a relatively gun-shy shooter, the only way Hunter will command opponents' respect and open up the floor for the offense is by making shots at a high rate. Right now defenses are willing sagging away from him and Hunter hasn't made them pay.
Brandon Goodwin Is In the Game
Two-way player Brandon Goodwin has checked in for the first time tonight after not playing in the first half. The Hawks called up Goodwin prior to Friday's game, and will have a chance to use him now that Young is injured and the team needs more shot creation.
Goodwin is a pesky defender and capable ball-handler, although his shooting ability remains theoretical for now. A 20-point blowout could be a good opportunity for him to stretch his legs.
Hawks Continue to Stall
Without Young, the Hawks are truly rudderless on offense. Collins has scrapped his way to an efficient 32 points on 13-of-32 shooting, but no other Hawk has more than 10 and Atlanta is unable to reliably create good looks. The team has cut down on its turnover rate but hardly improved its offensive rating since halftime. Possessions just don't seem to go anywhere, and thus the offense constantly stalls out against this pesky Bulls defense.
Chicago leads, 83-65, after three quarters.
Hawks Shift To Bigger Lineup As Game Spirals Out Of Hand
The Hawks went to the pairing of Len and Fernando early in the fourth quarter, presumably to solidify their presence on the glass and simply provide themselves with a change of pace. Pierce briefly made that look a staple of his second unit on the team's West Coast road trip immediately following Collins' suspension, but scrapped it when it became untenable offensively.
Plenty of time has passed since then, but those super-big alignments remain untenable offensively. Some teams have the personnel to play two centers at once, but the Hawks are not one of them. In fairness to Fernando and Len, no Atlanta lineup has been able to generate any offense tonight, and this game is far too small a sample to draw any conclusions about the pairing.
Pierce is simply out of options. Young and Jabari Parker aren't playing tonight, and this team simply wasn't built to run offense through any channel but Young. Playing two backup centers together feels like a metaphorical throwing up of the hands and sigh of exasperation.
The competitive portion of the game ended sometime in the first half, but as the two teams empty their benches in the fourth, here are some final stats for each side, courtesy of Cleaning the Glass.
The Bulls scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions in this one, compared to just 81.7 for the Hawks. It is Atlanta's second consecutive game under 82 points per 100. Chicago also shot a 60.1 percent effective field goal percentage to the Hawks' 43.6 percent. In keeping with a season-long issue for Atlanta, the Bulls rebounded over 28 percent of their own misses.
The Bulls also shot 46 percent from 3, but the most decisive and lopsided area of this game was in transition. The Bulls scored 1.59 points per possession in transition on 20 percent frequency while Atlanta mustered just 0.8 points per trip -- less than their halfcourt efficiency! The Hawks would have needed far more to go their way than transition alone to make this one competitive, but that advantage tilted the game heavily in Chicago's favor.
The Hawks will carry a 10-game losing streak to Orlando on Monday for their final game of 2019. Atlanta, having lost 22 of their last 24 games, is now 6-27 on the season.