Hawks starters send clear message to Bulls, Eastern Conference


Hawks starters send clear message to Bulls, Eastern Conference

As the Bulls and Toronto Raptors jockeyed for playoff position over the regular season’s final month, the general thought was that the loser of that battle — thus earning the No. 4 seed — would actually be better off, avoiding the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs’ second round.

Since dealing for Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith in early January, the Cavaliers, led by a resurgent LeBron James, won 34 of their final 46 games and headed down the home stretch looking like the favorites in the East, with James searching for his fifth straight Finals appearance. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks, who led the East by as many as 11 games in early March and had the conference's top seed locked up before April 1, had lost two straight heading into their regular-season finale, perhaps too casually heading toward the finish line after losing to the Knicks at home on Monday.

Seemingly forgotten as the 60-win team with four All-Stars, head coach Mike Budenholzer then made the decision to play his regular starters in Wednesday's finale against the Bulls.

And the result was a clear message to Chicago and the rest of the Eastern Conference, that when healthy and clicking the Hawks are still a dominant group worthy of contender status.

[MORE BULLS: Bulls clinch third seed and matchup with Bucks in comeback win]

Budenholzer's decision to play his starters in a seemingly meaningless game had merit, as power forward Paul Millsap (shoulder) was returning from a five-game absence. But Wednesday wasn't just a test run for these Hawks, to let Millsap work a few shots in with the rest of the starters before emptying the bench early in the contest.

Instead, the Hawks came out as the more aggressive team against a Bulls group clearly playing to win in order to maintain their third-place standing in the East. The Hawks raced out to a 16-4 lead to begin the game, forcing Bulls turnovers, getting Millsap involved early with three shots and dominating inside against a Bulls team without Joakim Noah and a healthy Taj Gibson, who left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder strain.

"Monday (against the Knicks) I don’t think we were very good, and so tonight we feel better abut how we’re playing and I think that was really important for us," Budenholzer said. "We needed our group to play better, and I think that starting group had a lot of good stretches, three or four good stretches where they played well. And I think that was most important."

The next good stretch occurred with the Hawks up seven at halftime thanks to the hot shooting of sixth man Dennis Schroder. Budenholzer again opted to begin the third quarter with his starters, and the result was an 11-0 run to begin the period, giving the Hawks a commanding 18-point lead on the road against a Bulls team that hadn't lost at the United Center in over a month.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The Bulls didn't back down, eventually cutting into that lead and trailing by two at the end of the third quarter. It was then that Budenholzer opted to take his starters out of the game. Even still, the Hawks showed off their depth in that final quarter, trailing by just two inside two minutes to play with a lineup led by the likes of Austin Daye, John Jenkins and Elton Brand. Ultimately the Bulls finished the 91-85 victory, but the starters' message had been sent long before the final horn.

The Hawks had rested starters earlier in the year after wrapping up the East, and to do so on the road against a team as physical as the Bulls would've made sense. And though their primary goal was to re-acclimate Millsap and get some momentum going, without trying they gave yet another glimpse of how dominant a group they can be.

"We just want to be playing at a high level, and we want our whole team to be playing that way. We went out there and competed. We played hard today, so I’m pleased with where we’re at as a team," said Al Horford, who had 14 points in 22 minutes. "The Bulls are a type of team where you can’t come out and not bring it, because they’ll embarrass you and guys came out with good energy. We responded well."

For the Hawks, Wednesday was simply another day at the office. Both Budenholzer and Horford agreed that competing against a playoff contender in Chicago was more beneficial than if they had played a lottery-bound team. Yet to do it in such a dominating fashion against a Bulls team they could meet in the Eastern Conference Finals was an indicator that the Bulls didn't necessarily draw the short straw in avoiding the Hawks.

"Every time we play we want to get up for the game and try to give a great effort," said point guard Jeff Teague, who finished with 10 points in 23 minutes. "Every time we go out on the floor we try to put the best product out."

Monte Harrison, brother to Bulls' Shaq, makes sibling sports history

Monte Harrison, brother to Bulls' Shaq, makes sibling sports history

Miami Marlins center fielder Monte Harrison made a bit of history on Aug. 4, when he laced up for his first ever MLB game.

With his debut, he and older brother Shaq officially became just the sixth MLB-NBA brother duo in league history. The most recent? Klay and Trayce Thompson, the latter of which appeared in his last MLB game on June 20, 2018 for the White Sox. Chicago ties all around.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

Shaq used his trademark brand of heart and hustle to work his way up from two 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns to a multi-year pact with the Bulls. Monte's path to the majors began in 2014 after the Milwaukee Brewers plucked him in the second round of the Amateur Draft from Lee's Summit West High School in Lee's Summit, Mo. He was jettisoned to Miami as part of the Christian Yelich trade in 2018. 

In 2019, Monte played 58 games between Miami's High-A and Triple-A affiliates, slashing .270/.351/.441 with 9 home runs, 24 RBI and 23 stolen bases. He's been known to flash some leather, too, and entered this season the club's tenth-ranked prospect.

Since his call-up, he's appeared in four contests (three starts) with the Marlins, and is just 1-for-10 at the plate with five strikeouts. But we'll forgive some early-career stumbles. His first big-league base-knock, which came on Thursday, was perfectly emblematic of what Bulls fans have come to expect from the Harrison household.

Yup. A cue-shot infield single. Exit velocity: 44.3 mph. Expected batting average: .190. But he beat it out. And followed it up with a stolen base. You can't script this stuff.

"I don’t know what my mother did, a lot of prayers, a lot of believing, and trust in us," Monte said after his debut on Tuesday, via Bob Nightengale. "We just worked our ass off.''

That much is evident.

RELATED: How Bulls’ Shaq Harrison impacts games, even with limited playing time


Latest on the NBA's second bubble for teams eliminated from restart

Latest on the NBA's second bubble for teams eliminated from restart

With the NBA restarting with 22 of its 30 teams, there was buzz in early July of a second bubble coming to Chicago for the eight teams excluded to get in organized team activities and possibly scrimmages.

Now, it appears those talks have significantly slowed, if not stalled entirely.

The Athletic reported Tuesday that there is "significant doubt" the second bubble concept will come to fruition, but Friday, that bringing the "Delete Eight" teams into the Disney campus has been discussed. Any agreement — whether it be a full-on bubble or respective, in-market OTAs — would require stringent safety protocols and need to be agreed upon by the league and NBPA.

On the most recent episode of the Bulls Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Chicago Bulls insider K.C. Johnson broke down the latest scuttlebut:

Well, the latest is, you really got only one shared goal between these eight teams and that is to get some kind of formal group activities authorized by the league and the players association.

How that plays out and the form that takes, there are different goals. There are some teams that wouldn't mind doing a bubble. There are other teams that would rather stay in their own practice facilities and not travel. There are other teams that want to do regional scrimmages against another team. And complicating this is that Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players association, is on record as saying: Unless there are the exact same safety protocols going on in Orlando for the second bubble, it's a non-starter for her.

The league's attention mostly has been in Orlando, obviously, and that was a signficant financial undertaking. So you'd also have to factor in that, what kind of financial undertaking would they commit to these eight teams. It did look like there was some positive momentum for, not a bubble, but for each team to be able to hold some sort of offseason training sessions, group sessions in their own facilities, like OTAs in the NFL.

And I don't think that's dead, but there's certainly not as much optimism as there was maybe a week, ten days ago for that. I mean, it's fluid, and there's nothing definitive yet, but you may be staring at that dreaded eight month window between formal group activities for these eight teams. 

In the episode, the crew also breaks down the week in NBA bubble action, talks Jim Boylen and more. Listen here or via the embedded player below: