For the third time this season, the Bulls and Hornets square off, this time at the United Center. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here’s what to watch for:
Hornets’ last five (3-2)
Dec. 11 — W at Nets: 113-108
Dec. 10 — W vs. Wizards: 114-107
Dec. 8 — L vs. Hawks: 122-107
Dec. 6 — L vs. Nets: 111-104
Dec. 4 — W vs. Warriors: 106-91
Storyline(s) for each team
This is already the third matchup of the Bulls and Hornets this season, and each of the first two were wild in their own way. In the first — the season-opener — Lauri Markkanen dropped a season-high 35 points and 17 rebounds, but in a foreboding result, the Bulls squandered a 10-point fourth quarter lead and fell 126-125. Then, on Nov. 23, the Bulls found themselves on the winning side of an epic late-game collapse, and an epic Zach LaVine performance. You remember:
Both of these teams are theoretically hunting the eight seed in the East, but the Hornets have a little bit more to hang their hats on, at present. They’re 1.5 games back of the current eighth-seeded Orlando Magic (the Bulls three games back) and are enjoying breakout campaigns from budding star Devonte’ Graham, fast-improving sophomore Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington. Even Terry Rozier has become a pretty efficient catch-and-shoot scorer.
The Bulls are on a solid run of defensive performances, in which they've competed wire-to-wire against the Heat and Raptors (both losses) and throttled the lowly Hawks, but are still waiting on their halfcourt offense to catch up. For what it’s worth, they’ve scored 120.5 points per contest in their two matchups with Charlotte this year. Given the ludicrosity of each of these teams' last two matchups, it's hard to say if either has a definitive edge tonight, but it should be a fun one, nonetheless.
Player to watch: Devonte’ Graham
Speaking of Graham… It’s early, but he might already be building a compelling case for Most Improved Player this year. After averaging just 4.7 points in a reserve role in his rookie campaign, he’s up to 20 points and 7.6 assists per game on 39.7% 3-point shooting (8.9 attempts!) this season, and has earned a starting backcourt role alongside Rozier. In the Hornets' last game, in Brooklyn, he dropped 40 in riveting fashion:
Fortunately, the Bulls have as good a point-guard stopper as you could ask for in Kris Dunn, who’s coming off a night of hounding — and effectively bottling up — Trae Young. Graham is averaging 20.5 points, nine assists and five 3-pointers made against the Bulls this season. A stringent performance against him would be another feather in Dunn’s cap.
Matchup to watch: Paint scoring and rebounding
The Hornets have been notoriously shaky in the painted area — at least on the defensive side of the ball. Per NBA Stats, Charlotte currently ranks 28th in the league in defensive rebounding rate (70.5%) and opponent points in the paint per game (51.8), and 25th in blocks per game (4.3). Bismack Biyombo has recently slid into the Hornets' starting lineup as a mend to that, but the team doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection outside of him.
In the season-opener, the Bulls outrebounded the Hornets 58-48 and outscored them 78-42 in the paint. The story of their last matchup (No. 23) was LaVine’s 3-point barrage (the Bulls lost both the rebounding battle and the points-in-paint battle), but if the shots aren’t falling tonight, the interior could be a well to return to. In that scenario, Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford would be benefactors.
At Thursday’s practice, Jim Boylen said Chandler Hutchison and Cristiano Felicio both played 3-on-3, a step in the right direction for both (it was Hutchison’s first contact day). No further updates on either of them, as of yet. Other than that, the Bulls should enter this one with the same cast of characters as the past two weeks.
For the Hornets, Marvin Williams has already been ruled out, Nic Batum is officially listed as doubtful and Malik Monk is officially listed as probable.
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