3 keys to watch in Bulls’ regular season opener vs. Atlanta Hawks

Rob Schaefer
·7 min read

3 keys to watch in Bulls’ regular season opener vs. Hawks originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

288 days.

That’s how much time has elapsed since the Bulls last played a game that mattered. The date was March 10, the opponent was the Cleveland Cavaliers and the result was a victory. Less than 24 hours later, a positive COVID-19 test from the Utah Jazz’ Rudy Gobert caused the league to suspend its season. Later, the Bulls were left uninvited from the 22-team Disney campus restart.

But all 30 teams are back now. First up for the Bulls is an opponent they dominated last season in the Atlanta Hawks to the tune of a 3-0 record and with a 29.7-point average margin of victory.

Now, these aren’t those same 20-47 Hawks (who also haven’t played a regular season game since March). And, despite overhauling their front office and coaching staff, the Bulls’ roster is largely returned from their 22-43 finish last season, save for the additions of fourth overall pick Patrick Williams and free agent Garrett Temple, and the losses of Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison.

The Hawks enter the year a popular pick among prognosticators to break into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, with the Bulls lagging in the play-in clump. This will be an interesting initial barometer of where each squad stands.

Here are three keys to watch:

Look for a high-scoring affair

The Hawks transformed themselves -- on paper -- into a high-octane group this offseason with the signings of Bogdan Bogdanović and Danillo Galinari to supplement Trae Young. John Collins also enters the season unimpinged after missing 25 contests last year due to suspension.

How those pieces fit, especially on the defensive end, remains to be seen. But even in their first meaningful minutes together, they pose a dangerous challenge to a Bulls’ defense that looked leaky at times while adjusting to Billy Donovan’s schemes -- and the losses of Dunn and Harrison -- in the preseason.

Such growing pains reared their head most glaringly in the preseason finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when they ceded 90 points and 46.4 percent 3-point shooting through three quarters (after which the Bulls’ starters checked out for the final time). From the Bulls’ perspective, head coach Billy Donovan partially attributed those marks to short closeouts and miscommunications on “peel-back” switches in pick-and-pop scenarios -- a byproduct of the team’s recent shift in screen-and-roll defensive strategy.

“We had a lot of short closeouts,” Donovan said after that game. “We did not get out there well enough. There were a couple times that we needed to, what I would call late switch it, where the big is getting dragged to the basket and there’s no chance for him to get back to his man and he calls off the coverage and the guard has got to peel back and take the big.”

On that night, Al Horford (17 points, 4-5 3P) and Mike Muscala (13 points, 3-6 3P) combined for 30 points and 7-for-11 3-point shooting (63.6 percent) in 38 cumulative minutes. Imagine the havoc the Hawks’ pick-and-pop threats -- mainly, Galinari, Collins -- can wreak if such issues flare up again. The Bulls’ counterpunch against two prolific on-ball creators in Young and Bogdanović will also offer an early test of their response to Dunn and Harrison’s departures. Those were their two most dependable perimeter defenders last season.

And if you’re not convinced yet this “over” is one to smash… The Hawks will be without Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo (RIP revenge game dynamic). There could be a lot of scoring in this one.

Let the ‘Prove It’ seasons begin

Markkanen and Collins will hope to get in on the fun. Each enter their respective fourth NBA seasons without rookie extensions from the teams that drafted them, and a heck of a lot to prove. More fun, for observers: They could spend a fair amount of time tonight lined up across from one another.

“It's another motivation for me,” Markkanen said of playing this season without an extension locked in. “Obviously it's not the main thing, but obviously it fuels my fire to play even harder and do what this team needs me to do.”

RELATED: Lauri Markkanen disappointed but motivated without extension

Don’t read into any personal rivalry between these two. But how each comes out in the first game of a prove it season will be illuminating, especially in the case of Markkanen for Bulls fans.

Patrick Williams: Starting small forward?

Patrick Williams started the Bulls’ final two preseason games at the small forward spot, supplanting Otto Porter Jr. Could that foreshadow him trotting with the first unit in his official NBA debut?

“That’s a game-time decision,” Williams said after shootaround Wednesday morning. “My job is just to be ready whenever my name is called, whether it's in the starting lineup or coming off the bench or coming off the bench.”

As our K.C. Johnson wrote and expounded upon Tuesday evening, all signs point to Patrick Williams making his first (real) NBA start in the opener. He's taken first-team reps in practice. He’s listed as a probable starter at the 3 spot in the Bulls’ game notes.

And, really, it would make all the sense in the world. 

Williams’ humility, hard-nosed work ethic and inquisitive approach has impressed across the Advocate Center throughout an abridged training camp and preseason. His defensive aptitude and ability to impact the game without the ball make him a snug fit on the wing in the current starting lineup, and his unproven 3-point shooting could ideally be covered for with Coby White, Zach LaVine and Markkanen surrounding him. 

LaVine sang Williams’ praises after morning shootaround, saying his “even-keeled” nature has impressed him. 

“Even if he has a bad game, he still competes at the other end and he doesn’t hang his head on things,” LaVine said. “He’s more mature in that way.”

Once upon a time, LaVine also entered the NBA at age 19.

I told him like, man, there are going to be some ups and downs. I told him what I did wrong. I used to go to the gym after every bad game I played. I’d be in the gym until like 1, 2 a.m.,” LaVine said of his advice to Williams for his rookie year. “Next day I’d go to practice and I’d be wearing my body down. I said, ‘Just don’t hang your hat on every game. We have so many games’ … Just ride the roller coaster.”

Porter, meanwhile, possesses outside shooting and off-the-dribble creation that would really help a depleted second unit that is still playing without Thad Young and was without Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine -- who all recently returned to practice -- for most of the preseason. 

Donovan hasn’t pigeon-holed himself into anything lineup or rotation-related yet. He’s still learning the team, and his available players have been in flux. How he dolls out minutes Wednesday will be interesting to monitor.

Injury report

Bulls

  • Thad Young (left leg infection) -- OUT

  • Tomáš Satoranský and Devon Dotson are both AVAILABLE, an upgrade from being listed as questionable on Tuesday

Hawks

  • Kris Dunn (right knee cartilage disruption) -- OUT

  • Rajon Rondo (health and safety protocols) -- OUT

  • Tony Snell (right foot inflammation) -- OUT

  • Onyeka Okongwu (left foot inflammation) -- OUT

  • Clint Capela (left achilles soreness) -- DOUBTFUL

  • Brandon Goodwin was upgraded to PROBABLE

  • Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish were upgraded to AVAILABLE.

Last updated: 4:32 p.m. CT

How to watch

Date: Dec. 23 | 7 p.m. CT

TV: NBC Sports Chicago

Stream: MyTeams App

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