For the first two and a half months of the season, the Blackhawks were battling through major inconsistency issues. They had won more than two games in a row just once and lost at least three straight five times.
And yet somehow, the Blackhawks still found themselves afloat in the Western Conference playoff race.
But the tide has finally started to turn.
Since Dec. 15, the Blackhawks are 12-5-0 and have the fourth-most standings points in the NHL over that span with 24. They’ve also won a season-long five consecutive games and have a plus-13 goal differential during their winning streak.
Now, there are certainly some statistical trends that are unsustainable over the long term that could result in a market correction. Their on-ice shooting percentage (13.0) and save percentage (94.7) at 5-on-5 play during their winning streak is a combined 107.7, which is the second-highest in the league over that stretch.
But the Blackhawks are playing a brand of hockey that will win them games more often than not going forward: The top guys are producing, the depth scoring is there, the defensive structure has tightened up and the goaltending remains strong.
"No question,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said on whether he feels this type of performance will continue to lead to positive results. “We are being rewarded. There's no reason to get away from it. It's paying off and the more it gets into our mentality and our identity that this is who we are, and we'll do this no matter what, it's a habit and you don't think twice about it. We still need to work at preparing to approach the game that way, but when we do it's easier for you and you'll set up your teammates as well."
Perhaps the most notable part of the winning streak is the fact the Blackhawks look like a team that's on the same page after making an in-season schematic adjustment in November, on top of dealing with an array of key injuries. The Blackhawks stayed the course and aren't wavering from their game which we saw them do earlier in the season, whether they're playing with a lead or a deficit.
Take Sunday's 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets as an example. The Blackhawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, gave up a late goal in the second period that cut their lead to 2-1, but punched back in the third period by scoring twice to pull ahead 4-1, which iced the game.
One month ago, the Blackhawks would probably find a way to squander that two-goal lead. That hasn't been the case over the last month and the Blackhawks are hoping this becomes part of their DNA.
"We're finally starting to full buy-in to the system," Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner said. "Full effort level, doing the right things at the right times. ... Everyone's just doing their job, and we're starting to feel [that] doing those things gets you rewarded and everyone keeps doing it. We're doing well, but we've just got to keep doing it because every point is crucial."
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On the heels of an epic comeback over the Cavaliers on Saturday, the Bulls visit the Bucks in search of a signature win. The game tips off at 4 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Bucks’ last five games: (5-0)
Jan. 18 — W at Nets: 117-97
Jan. 16 — W at Celtics: 128-123
Jan. 14 — W vs. Knicks: 128-102
Jan. 11 — W at Trail Blazers: 122-101
Jan. 10 — W at Kings: 127-106
Storyline(s) to watch
There’s a lot working against the Bulls in this one. On top of the Bucks being, far and away, the best team in the NBA so far this season (their current +12.6 point differential is almost two points better than the 2015-16 Warriors), they’re currently in the midst of a six-game win streak and own the league’s second-best home record at 20-2. These teams have met three times already this season, with the Bucks winning all three by an average margin of 14.7 points. The Bulls will be happy the fourth meeting is the last.
It’s another game against a winning team, famously the Bulls’ kryptonite. The comeback over Cleveland was great theater, but the Bucks represent the harshest of reality checks. In those aforementioned three matchups, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.3 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while shooting 56.7%. As a team, the Bucks averaged 55 rebounds per games (to the Bulls' 46), blocked 6.3 shots per game and held the Bulls to a cumulative 39.4% shooting from the field in those three games.
On the flip side, pulling out a win, though unlikely, would be that much more of a confidence boost.
Player(s) to watch: The shooters
Antetokounmpo is borderline unstoppable. The ever-looming threat of him getting rolling is the most pressing issue facing the Bulls today, especially without both of their top two centers.
But the Bucks are truly devastating to match up with because of the shooting they’ve surrounded him with. As a team, Milwaukee attempts the fourth-most 3-pointers per game (38.8) and cans them at a 36% clip. That’s not mind-bending efficiency, but between *deep breath* George Hill (53.3% from deep, three attempts per game), Kyle Korver (42.6%, 3.9 attempts), Khris Middleton (41.5%, 5.2 attempts), Ersan Ilyasova (37%, 2.5 attempts), Wes Matthews (36%, 4.2 attempts), Eric Bledsoe (35.4%, 3.6 attempts) and others, they’re a threat to have at least one or more guys catch fire from deep every night. Even in a down shooting year, Brook Lopez (29.9%, 4.7 attempts) isn’t afraid to chuck, either, especially above the break.
The Bucks have made at least 10 3-pointers in all but three of their 44 games this season. The bright side? The Bulls are responsible for one of those and have outshot the Bucks from behind the arc in two of their three meet-ups — though, of course, none have resulted in wins.
Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. the Bucks defense
LaVine is the engine behind most every competent offensive stretch of basketball for the Bulls this season, but he's struggled versus Milwaukee, averaging just 18.3 points and 32.2% shooting in their previous three meetings. This season, the Bulls own a 99.8 offensive rating with LaVine off the floor (per Cleaning the Glass) and are 3-10 in games in which he scores under 20 points. LaVine's 31 20-point games are leagues more than the rest of his teammates have combined (20), as are his 14 30-point outings (Lauri Markkanen has two of those).
LaVine is on a rare kind of tear of late, but the Bucks are multiple steps up from the quality of opponent he has been eviscerating. With the unique amount of length and athleticism they'll be able to throw at him (as a team, the Bucks own a 101.4 defensive rating, first in the NBA), the Bulls will have to be creative in finding ways to get LaVine going. If they can't, it will likely spell doom.
Trend to watch: A return to small-ball?
Against the Cavaliers, Boylen rode a new-look lineup of Kris Dunn, LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen down the stretch to enormous success. Boylen has stated that he wants everyone on this team to be interchangeable relative a consistent style of play, but the Bulls deviated from their norm and switched a ton of pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter of that game, forcing 10 Cavaliers turnovers while holding them to 14 points and 26.7% shooting.
Yes, that was the Cavs and these are the Bucks. Still, LaVine and Dunn were both highly complimentary of that lineup’s speed and versatility after the game, and it’ll be interesting to see if Boylen goes back to the well with it — or at least starts switching more in pick-and-roll situations as a different look defensively.
Robin Lopez (illness) is out vs. Bulls.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 20, 2020
The Bulls are undermanned in the frontcourt, at present, so evading R. Lopez minutes off the bench is helpful.
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