Hawks vs. Bulls Game Preview

Ben Ladner

The last time the Hawks played Chicago they suffered one of their worst losses of the season, which sparked an eventual 1-13 stretch and established some of the uglier trends that have plagued the Hawks this season. Neither team has found much of a rhythm since that game. The Bulls have five wins in their last 16 games, but none have come against teams over .500, and the team hasn’t consistently clicked in the way it proved capable of in Atlanta. Despite nearly toppling the Toronto Raptors in its last game, Chicago is 8-17 with an offense even less effective than Atlanta’s and a defense that, while bothersome for opponents, can be shaky at times.

The Bulls force the most turnovers of any defense in the NBA, but struggle to rebound, contest shots, and keep opponents off the foul line. They are the most foul-prone defense in the league in large part because they hunt turnovers so aggressively that fouling or giving up a bucket become the only options when defenders get out of position. Still, Chicago ranks 12 in points allowed per possession, and results are results. That turnover-forcing gambit worked the first time Atlanta saw it; the Hawks coughed the ball up on 24 percent of their possessions in a game played entirely on Chicago’s terms.

It’s unlikely the Hawks shoot as poorly on Wednesday as they did on November 6. They went 6-of-30 from 3 in that game – including 0-for-8 from Trae Young – as the Bulls sapped Atlanta’s energy on both ends of the floor. The Hawks will be better equipped to handle Chicago’s traps on Young, having seen them from most every opponent this season. If it moves the ball the way it did against Indiana, Charlotte, and Miami, Atlanta’s offense will put itself in position to exploit the openings the Bulls grant.

Offensively, the Bulls have underachieved relative to moderate preseason expectations. They rank 27 in offensive efficiency and are one of the least accurate shooting teams in the NBA. That could be due, in part, to bad luck. Chicago has one of the largest disparities between expected (53.9) and actual (50.1) effective field goal percentage and generates most of its shots from efficient locations on the floor. But that expected figure doesn’t account for the players taking the shots, and the individual Bulls have shot about as expected from 3-point range. Lauri Markkanen has underperformed relative to his career averages (he and Thaddeus Young could stand to improve their 2-point shooting) but most everyone else has suddenly lost his touch.

What offensive dynamism Chicago does have comes mostly from Zach LaVine, who is averaging 22 points and four assists per game. But his inability to score and set up teammates efficiently leaves the Bulls without a solid offensive foundation, and LaVine’s teammates are often left carrying out tasks for which they are underqualified. Daniel Gafford and Wendell Carter Jr. are Chicago’s most efficient role players, but neither is much of a catalyst. No rotation player with a usage rate over 20 percent has a true shooting percentage over 56.

Absent a reliable creator, possessions are often left without direction or energy. But against a porous Atlanta defense, the Bulls’ deficiencies won’t be so stark. LaVine will wiggle free slightly more often and Markkanen might find his shots that much less hurried. The first time these two teams played, the Bulls walked into open 3s all game. The Hawks will be hard pressed to play worse on Wednesday than they did in that contest, but coming off an overtime loss in Miami, Atlanta’s legs won’t be as fresh as usual. So goes life in the NBA. The Hawks must press on anyway. 

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