[Thanks to wjb1492 for today's game preview (sign up!). -ed.]
Check out the Hawks point-of-view over at Peachtree Hoops. I can't even begrudge them their enthusiasm - if ever there was a group of fans that put in their dues, it's Hawks' fans.
The Bulls last faced the Hawks just 10 days ago - traveling to Atlanta to play the second night of a back-to-back and turning in a total stinker of a game to lose by 35. Just to refresh your memory as to how miserable that game was, the Bulls gave up 50% shooting while hitting only 36.4% of their own shots and lost in very nearly every box score stat. The Hawks are once again favorites to win, so what hope is there for us Bulls' fans?
The Hawks are the team on the second night of a back-to-back this time, beating Utah at home last night then having to travel to Chicago. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Hawks have been ridiculously good in this situation, with a 5-1 record on the second night that includes wins over Denver and Dallas. Still, it has to be something of a positive that they just played and traveled while the Bulls had a day's rest after a home win. (For the record, the Bulls are 6-5 when playing on one day's rest.)
Also, the Hawks are on a 6-game winning streak. Now this sounds like a negative for the Bulls, but think about it - streaks have to end at some point, right? And sometimes they end because a team on a roll totally overlooks an opponent they assume isn't a threat, right? And after beating the Bulls by 35 just 10 games ago, by far the Hawks' biggest margin in this 6-game win streak, what team is Atlanta more likely to overlook than us? (Not that I've studied this scientifically or anything, but it makes me feel better to believe it!)
And finally, all 13 Bulls practiced yesterday (Tyrus in non-contact drills only) for I believe the first time all regular season. Now unfortunately this doesn't mean that all 13 players are healthy, or even available for the game yet. But maybe all practicing together will give the ones who play an emotional boost - I mean, we heard all about what great chemistry this group had leading into the season, and as short as the viable bench is the missing elements had to have hurt at least a little. So, maybe having all those elements back in contact, even if it's only in practice, will improve the on-court effectiveness of the team! Right?
OK, so in reality it's a huge stretch to find positives about the game tonight. Atlanta had fairly decent expectations coming into the season, and if anything they've exceeded those with the second-best record in the East right now and the second best scoring margin in the entire NBA. They have the top-rated offense, and a top-10 defense to go with it. They're athletic, they're healthier than the Bulls, and they're flat out playing much, much better as a team. And the Bulls continue to be in the bottom half of the NBA by virtually all measures. Meanwhile, in spite of a glimpse of hope here and there, John Salmons and Kirk Hinrich continue to struggle with their shooting far into the month of December - we're way past the "shooting slump" category here. Lately, Brad Miller has joined them, shooting under 40% over the past 5 games and missing all 5 3-pointers attempted.
The team has collectively looked better over the past couple of games - the harshest critics will point out that the effort still resulted in a 1-1 record with the win being a not-so-impressive victory over the Knicks, but for most of us the difference has been noticeable in that the Bulls were at least watchable. I didn't have the overwhelming urge to turn the TV off during these past two games, and that alone suggests a huge improvement in . . . something. The "greater effort/energy" mantra will likely be sorely tested tonight, but no matter what my head is telling me as I write this, I still feel that glimmer of hope stirring. Maybe this is the game that the effort and focus is there from beginning to end? Maybe this is the game that the shooting is respectable in every quarter? Maybe this is the game that takes us all back to the beginning of the season, when we were fresh off victories over the Spurs and Cavs and the season didn't feel like another long march to the lottery? A lot of things will need to break right for the Bulls to walk away with a victory, but I hear that's why they play the game.