Charlotte Hornets

What to watch for: Bulls match up with Charlotte Hornets for the third time this season

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USA TODAY

What to watch for: Bulls match up with Charlotte Hornets for the third time this season

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.

Injury/miscellaneous updates

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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What to watch for: Bulls look for bounce back win over Hornets

What to watch for: Bulls look for bounce back win over Hornets

Saturday night, the Bulls travel to Charlotte for the second time this season, in search of a bounceback win. The game tips at 6 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Bulls need a bounce back

And that might be an understatement. Anyone hoping that getting trounced on their home floor by Toronto, lackluster losses to the shorthanded Nets and Pacers, or blowing late-game leads to the Knicks and these Hornets would represent early-season low points were dealt a dose of cruel reality last night.

Things are bad in Chicago right now, and a loss — or any additional controversy — coming out of this game could push the team past the point of no return. 

It would be disingenuous not to zero in on Zach LaVine as the person on the team most in need of a breakout performance. In the month of November, LaVine is averaging 19.2 points and four assists per game on 39.4% shooting and a paltry 4.2 free-throw attempts per game. On the season, he has had four games with a positive plus-minus, and is last on the team with a -90 overall plus-minus. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls are 12.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with LaVine off the floor.

In addition to last night, Boylen has yanked LaVine from games twice early on in the season — in Nov. 3’s loss to the Pacers and in Nov. 16’s loss to the Nets. LaVine stats in the two games that succeeded those incidents:

Nov. 5 vs. LAL: 26 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 9-for-18 shooting (3-for-7 from three)

Nov. 18 vs. MIL: 11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4-for-16 shooting (2-for-7 from three)

It’s worth monitoring the level of intensity he comes out with tonight.

Catching a bad team at the right time

No game is guaranteed for this group right now, but for what it’s worth, they’re catching Charlotte at the right time.

In their last nine games (they’re 2-7 over that stretch), the Hornets have an offensive rating of 103.4 (28th, Bulls rank 30th) a defensive rating of 112.8 (22nd) and a net rating of -9.4 (27th). In the first matchup between these two, the Hornets shot absolutely lights out from three, setting a franchise record with 23 three-pointers made, but the Bulls outplayed them in most other appreciable categories.

The hope for the Bulls is that if they can close out with a little more urgency (big if) and that number naturally regresses, they can find an edge in this one. But beware of resting on laurels if Chicago gets out to a fast start; we all remember the late-game collapse on opening night that set the tone for a morbund start to the season.

Lauri Markkanen vs. PJ Washington

In Markkanen and Washington are two young forwards going in different directions. Markkanen’s struggles are well-documented, but his best game of the season remains his 35-point performance against the Hornets in the first game of the season. Markkanen shot 1-for-7 from deep in that game, making a habit of creating offense for himself with a number of aggressive drives and cuts. The Bulls have been searching for that version of Markkanen consistently — shooting struggles aside — since that night.

Maybe a return to Buzz City will provide a spark.

Washington, on the other hand, has settled in nicely to a complementary role in the Hornets starting lineup, serving as one of a host of surprise rookies taking the league by storm. He’s currently shooting 49% from three (qualifier: on only 3.1 attempts per game) — but, per Cleaning the Glass, that’s in the 96th percentile of players at his position. 

Bulls fans will remember the last time these two teams squared off, when Washington set a record for three-pointers in an NBA debut with seven:

 

Chandler Hutchison upgraded

More on this as it develops, but getting Hutchison back would be a stroke of good fortune for a Chicago team wanting on the defensive end, especially against a Charlotte team that’s marginal talent is concentrated on the wing.

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Bulls take tunnel vision approach to Charlotte for opener vs. Hornets

Bulls take tunnel vision approach to Charlotte for opener vs. Hornets

The significance of his first opening night as head coach? Jim Boylen wasn’t biting.

Opening with four of five games against teams that didn’t make last season’s playoffs, including Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C.? Boylen steered clear of that.

Addressing the goal stated on media day to make the playoffs? Lauri Markkanen added a qualifier.

“No promises,” he said. “But that’s the goal, for sure.”

The Bulls officially closed training camp Tuesday with a one-game-at-a-time and bunker mentality that would make any fan of clichés proud. They’re focused on the Hornets---and nothing of greater significance for now.

“We don’t talk about playoff team, non-playoff team. We’re talking about Charlotte,” Boylen said. “We’re going to play as hard as we can against Charlotte. That’s what we can control. And then we’ll move on.”

Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are scheduled to start. Chandler Hutchison, who increased his on-court work but has yet to practice because of a hamstring issue, is the only injured player. Boylen said he’d announce his other inactive player besides Hutchison Wednesday.

“I just want to help the team,” Boylen said, elaborating on the significance of his first opening night as head coach. “As a head coach, sometimes you help them and sometimes you let them help themselves. I want to be there for them, support them. Hopefully we honor our principles. We do our basics better, the best we can, and see what happens.”

Boylen wouldn’t touch the subject. But even with all four games against last season’s non-playoff teams coming on the road, getting off to a fast start is essential.

Beyond the fact it will continue the good vibes that began with a widely praised offseason and through voluntary September workouts, the Bulls are relatively healthy. And the close to their schedule offers some brutal tests, so building a cushion early would bolster playoff talk.

“That’s what we’re trying to do---start off strong,” Markkanen said. “That sets the pace for the rest of the year. We’re going one game at a time, but it’s really important for us to get these.”

The Bulls visit Memphis to face a rebuilding Grizzlies team and No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant on Friday. They will navigate the two-game trip following a preseason in which they played at a faster pace than last season and averaged 39.4 3-pointers per game. That ranked ninth in the league after finishing 27th with just 25.9 attempts last season.

“I think we get a ton of open looks,” Markkanen said. “I’ve had good looks and my teammates have as well. We’re playing unselfish basketball, sharing the ball, making the extra pass. I think it’s going to help us.”

Despite all the optimism and addition of 12-year veteran Thad Young, the Bulls remain young, the league’s second-youngest team behind the Suns. Questions about depth and defensive efficiency are legitimate.

The tests start for real Wednesday.

“I’ve seen a group of guys that want to do the right things,” Boylen said. “It’s a high character group. It’s a willing group. Our care factor is high and I expect for us to care for each other, play for each other, sacrifice for each other. I think we’ll do that well.” 

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