8:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Atlanta -3, Over/Under: 206.5
A pair of teams traveling in opposite directions meet tonight in the Windy City, as the struggling Chicago Bulls host the surging Atlanta Hawks. Few teams in the Eastern Conference, let alone the league as a whole, have been as hot as the Hawks (44-30, 1st in Southeast Division) of late, winners of thirteen of their past sixteen games, ascending to the Third Seed in the East in the process. During the month of March alone they have really turned up the heat, averaging 106.0 points on 46.9% shooting from the field, including 36.9% shooting from beyond the arc, while dishing out a solid 26.6 assists a night. With that said, their offensive proficiency has been a constant throughout the season, but it has been their collective play on the defensive end that has proven to be the catalyst of their recent run; this month they have held the competition to just 95.8 points on 40.9% shooting from the field, their lowest such outputs of any month this term, while extending their activity to new reaches with 8.5 steals and 6.0 rebounds per game. A year after surprising everyone en route to the best record in the conference (60-22), the 2015-2016 campaign hasn’t been quite as stellar for Mike Budenholzer and his charges, but that by no means should detract from the job that his team has done this season. Much has been made over the last year and some change of this team’s success despite the fact that they are void of any real star players, though they are rather a group of very good pieces that complement each other wonderfully, and in the end are greater than the sum of their parts. Depth is a real key for Coach Bud, the reigning Coach of the Year, whose rotation goes a good ten players deep; ten different players have logged at least fifteen minutes of action per game, with seven of that number tallying at least twenty, and as a result the scoring has been evenly distributed with five different Hawks averaging in double-figures. Chief among them are Budenholzer’s tandem of Forwards, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Millsap was one of the real Free Agent finds of last year, and has done a tremendous job of evolving his game towards the perimeter, registering a team-best 17.2 points per game on 47.6% shooting from the field, 8.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.5 blocks. However, his availability for tonight’s contest is currently in question as he was struck in the head during Saturday’s 112-95 thrashing of the Pistons, and was forced to leave early, though that could simply have been for precautionary reasons. The tenth-year veteran led the way with twenty-three points in the victory, netting eight of his fourteen attempts from the field (57.1%), including all but one of his four three-pointers (75.0%). Seven other Hawks finished the night in double-figures, as their Bench outscored Detroit’s 33-22. Horford, the elderstatesman of the team, continues to be a rock in the paint, averaging 15.4 points on 51.2% shooting, along with 7.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks in this, his Contract Year. Both players figure to play a sizable role in tonight’s tilt against Chicago, whose relative size can still create problems for the opposition. Though judging by their recent history with the denizens of the Windy City, it sure hasn’t seemed like they’ve created any problems that Atlanta hasn’t been able to solve; the Hawks have handled their opponent tonight rather easily this season, winning each of their previous three meetings by an average of 17.7 points per game, as they have torched the once mighty Bulls’ defense on 47.3% shooting and a staggering 28.7 assists, while tormenting them on the defensive end by forcing a ridiculous 19.7 turnovers and blocking 10.3 shots per meeting. Needless to say, this has been the very definition of a bad matchup for the home side tonight.
Meanwhile, as the visitors steamroll their way to the postseason, the Bulls (36-36, 4th in Central Division) seem hell-bent on doing everything in their power to avoid it for the first time in seven years. The transition from the Tom Thibodeau Era in Chicago to that of Fred Hoiberg has been far from a smooth one, as the term Lost in Translation appears to be very appropriate in describing this team. Ownership simply couldn’t have found a Head Coach more diametrically opposed to the one they’ve replaced, as the loose, offensive-minded Hoiberg is the polar opposite to the defensive-driven, taskmaster that stalked the sidelines of the United Center for the past five years. As a result, the Bulls are currently an amalgam of both coaches philosophies, stuck simultaneously in the past and in the future, yet utterly lost in the present. Since the All-Star Break, Hoiberg’s charges have gone 9-11, but have currently lost three games in a row, including back-to-back defeats against the lowly Knicks, and most recently Saturday Night’s 111-89 disaster at Orlando. Falling behind by fourteen points by the end of the first stanza, the visitors struggled mightily offensively, shooting just 40.9% from the field, including a dismal 6-of-24 from beyond the arc (25.0%). However, what was far more troubling was the complete absence of their once-trademark defensive intensity, as they allowed the Magic to shoot a blazing 53.9% from the floor, while getting outrebounded by ten boards, and mustering only a pair of steals, and three blocks. No wonder their recent string of performances prompted Forward Taj Gibson to proclaim that he was “Tired of losing to Crap Teams”. With just ten games left in the Regular Season, the Bulls currently find themselves on the outside looking in, two-and-a-half games behind the Pistons for the Eighth and Final Seed in the Eastern Conference. On the surface, it appears that many of Thibodeau’s principles still remain, for going by the numbers this is still a solid defensive team; Chicago has allowed 103.2 points (11th Overall) on 44.0% shooting from the field (7th Overall), including 34.0% from downtown (6th Overall), and 5.6 blocks (9th Overall), while yielding an Effective Field Goal Percentage (which is weighted for three-pointers) of 48.4% (5th Overall), and a Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio of 17.9% (2nd Overall). With that said, they struggle on the defensive glass (74.8% Defensive Rebounding Percentage), which checks in at 22nd Overall, and rank next-to-last in both turnovers forced (11.9) and Defensive Turnover Percentage (10.7%). As Gibson lamented earlier in the week, it’s a case of effort with this team. Clearly they remember what their former mentor instilled in them, but they are clearly missing the motivation to act upon it. With that said, it’s hardly as if Hoiberg’s infusion of Offensive ideals has had the desired effect either at this stage, for this continues to be one of the poorer teams in the league on that end of the court. The Bulls score 101.5 points per game (23rd Overall) on 44.0% shooting from the field (26th Overall), and their immense improvement from beyond the arc (4th Overall) has come at the expense of their ability to score within it (29th Overall), while they have been one of the worst teams in the NBA at getting to the Charity Stripe, ranking twenty-sixth in free-throws attempted (26th Overall). Furthermore, their Effective Field Goal Percentage is just 48.4% (27th Overall), while their Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio is only 18.6% (28th Overall), and this has all happened while playing at a significantly faster pace than in year’s past (96.1 possessions per 48 minutes). An even deeper look will reveal the caveat in their three-point shooting; despite the solid percentage, Chicago only attempts 21.1 treys per game, which is twenty-fourth in the league, or in other words seventh-fewest. Meanwhile, their struggles in shooting within the three-point arc are only magnified given that they’ve attempted the second-most two-point field goals overall. Essentially, this is the case of a team that was built to play a certain way for five years, and is now being transitioned into a completely different one. But please don’t get the sense that we’re going out of our way to bash Hoiberg, for unfortunately injuries have continued to plague this roster, perhaps ultimately keeping it from achieving it’s potential. Defensive Stalwart Joakim Noah has missed forty-three games rehabbing from surgery from a separated shoulder, while both Jimmy Butler (21.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals) and Derrick Rose (16.9 points, 4.8 assists) have missed fifteen and twelve games respectively. Versatile Sophomore Nikola Mirotic (10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds) has missed sixteen games of well. So as you can see, the first-year Coach has rarely had the luxury of a full deck to play with.