“Wow. Says here they’re actually keeping Dimitroff, for some reason…”
In the Eastern Conference, it only takes a little trending for a couple weeks to change your outlook on the season. Atlanta ended 2015 with a 7-1 run, but bad back-to-back losses to the Knicks has Hawks fans looking askance, even after shaking off the cobwebs with a 126-98 trouncing of lowly Philadelphia this past Thursday. Atlanta (22-15) seeks to avoid heading into a three-day layoff with a bad taste in their mouths by sliming the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, WGN) on 90’s Nickelodeon Day.
Meanwhile, in the Windy City, head coach Fred Hoiberg has transcended from a perception as a meek college professor-type to become “Hoisenberg” in the space of just two weeks. Hoiberg is pushing an above-average pace not seen since the days of Vinny Del Negro, yet after some turbulence on and off the court, the Bulls are on pace to win more games than they have in any of predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s final three seasons.
The Bulls’ six-game winning streak has Chicago right where Atlanta was a couple weeks ago: a few games shy of the top-seeded Cavs, with a prime opportunity to break away from the pack in the Eastern Conference. Not so fast, though!
Within the Bulls’ 22-12 record are 21 home games, the most of anyone in the NBA East. Only OKC and San Antonio have enjoyed more so far. Away from the Bulls’ pen, they’ve been just 6-7 to this point of the season. After four underwhelming road wins, the Bulls went a month without any before setting the Thunder asunder on Christmas Day. To keep the win streak going, Chicago needed all of Jimmy Butler’s team-record 40 second-half points (after just two points in the first half), which eclipsed His Airness’ 26-year-old team record for any half, to pull off a victory in Toronto last Sunday.
Chicago covets this win in ATL not only to even up their road record, but to keep the positive momentum going ahead of a 4-games-in-5-nights work week that begins Monday. They have elements of their road play that need fixing.
The Bulls generally force tough shots from all over the floor. 55.4 opponent FG% in the restricted areas (despite the 2nd most shots), and 35.7 opponent FG% at mid-range are the league’s best marks. But in their away games, their 71.3 defensive rebounding percentage is the league’s worst. Opponents average a league-high 14.0 O-Rebs per game when they’re hosting the Bulls.
Accordingly, Chicago’s defensive rating drops from a stout 96.1 at the United Center (4th in NBA among home teams) to a mediocre 102.8 (15th in NBA; Atlanta is 12th) away from home. Offensive rebounding isn’t Atlanta’s bag (20.7 O-Reb%, 5th-lowest in NBA), but as Al Horford (5 O-Rebs on Thursday) and the Hawks demonstrated against the Sixers, they’re not above it, particularly if they don’t fear teams that will make them pay repeatedly in transition.
The Bulls are making do without Joakim Noah, who has had issues with his shoulder for weeks and was left back in the Second City ahead of the upcoming 4-in-5 stretch. Pau Gasol won’t be left on an island, however. Rookie Bobby Portis (24.3 minutes/game, 8.0 RPG in his last 6 games) is getting steady minutes in the rotation to alleviate Pau, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. Gasol is going for swats more often than ever before (career-high 2.3 BPG), so he needs his frontcourt teammates to secure the defensive rebounds.
Part of Chicago defenders forcing tough shots is staying in front of their man, and as a result they limit their risks of gambling for deflections and steals. Their opponent turnover ratio (12.1 per 100 possessions) is an NBA-low, and only Portland and the Knicks average less than Chicago’s 13.9 PPG off turnovers. On the road, they’ve been outscored off turnovers by 4.3 PPG (4th-largest deficit in NBA). The league-leader in points off turnovers, Atlanta, will look to take advantage of this particular incongruity today.
Jeff Teague basically went through the motions for three-and-a-half quarters in Philly, and tonight the Hawks will need him zeroed-in defensively on the inefficient Derrick Rose (22.9 3FG%, career-low 72.2 FT%, 25.8 assist percentage, and 44.1 TS%). Part of Rose’s ineffectiveness stems from an inability to get into the lane, as he’s taking 32 percent of his shots as mid-rangers from 10 feet out (highest proportion since 2009-10).
While Rose’s bloom is off, Jimmy Buckets has become the go-to distributor as well (10 assists in each of his past two games; 6.9 APG, 2.4 TOs/game in last 7 games). It will be tougher to keep Butler cool with the former braided Bull Thabo Sefolosha (sore wrist) inactive today. Kent Bazemore will have to stay out of foul trouble.
Hawks guards and wings have to minimize paint penetration from Butler and Rose, while the forwards must disrupt deep-dishes to Gasol into the post, forcing turnovers and inefficient shots all while avoiding bailout fouls. Doing those things and beating the Bulls’ bigs down the floor in transition will lessen the need for Mike Budenholzer to break out the Thinking Chair in the closing minutes of the game.
Let’s Go Hawks!