“D*mn, Douglas! Back at it again, with the white Jordans!”
Don’t nobody cry for the Chicago Bulls! They’ve done pretty well after the All-Star Break even without leading scorer Jimmy Butler, winning three straight home games and averaging 117 PPG (29.3 APG) along the way. They may have to play again tonight without Derrick Rose (hamstring tendinitis). But that should only be a concern for the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Chicago, ESPN), who are out to avoid their first five-game home losing streak since December 2006 by finally defeating a shorthanded squad they’re supposed to beat at The Highlight Factory.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is pushing full-steam-ahead with his revamped Chicago offense. The Bulls have scored at least 25 points in 10 of their last 12 quarters. They rode with Doug McDermott’s 30 points off the bench to topple the Raptors last Friday. Two nights later, it was guard E’Twaun Moore’s turn, matching Rose with 24 points to pull away from the Lakers.
Rose sat out Wednesday’s game versus the Wizards, and Pau Gasol played a Flu Game Lite. But Moore, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell and McDermott all came through, part of a season-high committee of seven Bulls reaching double-figures. Even our old pal Justin Holiday got in on the action, nailing his first three-point attempt in Bulls Red. They’re all out to gain a measure of revenge after Atlanta’s last victory, a decisive 113-90 win at the United Center sixteen days ago, had Bulls fans booing their team off the floor right before the All-Star Break.
Chicago (30-26) pulling off yet another victory without Rose (6-2 this season), or Butler, Nikola Mirotic, or Joakim Noah, won’t be a surprise to them. It also won’t surprise fans of the Hawks (31-27), who have been spooked by one skeleton crew after another all season long. That wasn’t really the problem on Monday, as Atlanta succumbed to a performance by new Threak-holder Stephen Curry that the Orlando Magic would describe as “merciful.”
In all three games of this disappointing homestand, Hawks players committed more than 15 turnovers (6-16 this season), a stark difference from the first 8 games of the season when they started out 7-1 with no more than 15 turnovers in any of them (25-11 on the season). The February 10 victory over the Bulls was just the second time in this calendar year that Hawks players committed 12 or fewer turnovers (last time a Jan. 16 win vs. Brooklyn), compared to 13 occasions between late October and December.
The Hawks are 2-7 when leading scorer Paul Millsap (4-for-13 FGs, 1 assist, 3 TOs vs. GSW) turns the ball over more than thrice in a game. Sap is pushing to draw fouls and get to the free throw line, but spends too much time dramatizing for foul calls, instead of fighting to retain possessions, when the ball gets stripped from his hands.
Dennis Schröder (last 2 games: 21.5 PPG, 58.1 FG%, 38.5 3FG%, 8.0 APG, 3.5 TOs/game) put the Hawks on his back in the to help erase a dismal 23-point third-quarter deficit against Golden State, and is pushing to take over that top point guard spot from incumbent Jeff Teague (last 2 games: 10.5 PPG, 35.0 FG%, 25.0 3FG%, 50.0 FT%, 5.5 APG, 5.5 RPG, 3.0 TOs/game). His defensive effort has improved, yet Schro’s ability to make an indelible impression on Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be enhanced by cutting down on turnovers. Thabo Sefolosha has no interest in starting unless he has to, but disappearing act Kent Bazemore (last 4 games: 22.2 FG%, 8.3 3FG%, 1.0 APG, 2.5 TOs/game) is creating very little choice.
“I love shooting,” Coach Bud exclaimed after somebody yanked the pull string again yesterday. “I don’t think you can have enough shooting on the court… we have to get better offensively and we have to make more shots.” Budenholzer doesn’t expect his players to be on fire all the time. But if you are not shooting the ball well, you had better be doing other things well on the court: rebounding, getting stops, sparking transition, taking care of the ball. The Hawks’ struggles can be traced to starters who aren’t executing the other elements of the Hawks Cycle well when their shots from the floor go cold.
The good news for Atlanta is that Chicago doesn’t force turnovers. Their 5.9 team SPG and 11.8 opponent TOs/game rank last in the Association, and their top three ball-thieves are Butler, Mirotic, and Rose. The Bulls prefer to pester opponents into tough shots (league-best 43.2 opponent FG%) and, when they’re at a defensive disadvantage, hack the mess out of opponents (19.3 personal fouls per game, 5th in NBA) and send them to the free throw line (22.4 opponent FT attempts per game, 6th in NBA).
Fortunately for Chicago, opponents have not been making them pay. Their 71.9 opponent FT% is the best BDL since the 1999-2000 Trail Blazers (71.6%) and the 22nd-lowest enjoyed by any NBA team since the league started keeping track in 1970-71. Washington got ten more shots from the charity stripe on Wednesday, but could only hit 73.1% of them, compared to the Bulls’ 81.3 FT%.
Hosting the best team in the league, Atlanta made just 10 of their 16 free throws, ultimately helping Golden State keep the outcome beyond the Hawks’ clutches. The Hawks’ 73.3 FT% (22nd in NBA; 17.9 attempts/game) in February continues quite a slide, from 78.1% (11th in NBA; 18.9 attempts per game) in January, 78.8% (6th in NBA; 21.2 attempts/game) in December, and 80.6% (3rd in NBA; 21.1 attempts/game) in October/November. They’re getting less, and making less, as the season goes on.
Critical misses also cost the Hawks regulation victories at home this month against Orlando and Milwaukee. With so much pre-occupation with “shooters” at the three-point line and the area around the rim, it’s free throw shooting that’s in greatest need of re-emphasis.
Al Horford (23 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals, 1 TO vs. GSW) did just about all anyone could ask to keep the Hawks in contention on Monday. Atlanta will need another full court effort from him and recalibrated efforts by Millsap (4-for-13 FGs vs. GSW) and Mike Scott (0-for-4 FGs, but 9 defensive rebounds in 21 minutes vs. GSW) to keep Gasol, Gibson and Bobby Portis off the offensive glass.
After the dreaded Few Days Off, Horford should be spry enough to outlast an under-the-weather Gasol. And after surviving the onslaught of the Splash Brothers, the Hawks backcourt should have an easier time keeping Moore, Snell, Aaron Brooks and Mike Dunleavy in front of them. Should.
Let’s Go Hawks!