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Bulls vs. Hawks game preview and open thread: Zach is back, Tristan is ready

Chicago looks to go 3-0 against Hawks in season series

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Your Chicago Bulls will kick off their sprint to the postseason tonight as they host the Atlanta Hawks for the teams’ first of two meetings in eight days. Chicago faces a formidable schedule during the home stretch of the regular season, and tonight sure seems winnable, so let’s cross our fingers that the Bulls can get this done.

Chicago is still missing three crucial players in Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams. In some happier news, the team will see All-Star shooting guard Zach LaVine return to its line-up for the first time since February 11. The newest Bull, veteran center/power forward Tristan Thompson, is apparently available to play tonight. He will provide Chicago with some much-needed size and bulk in the paint and at the rim, but how much he’ll be able to give the Bulls at age 30 remains to be seen.

LaVine, who had his troublesome left knee drained and subsequently treated with some PRP therapy and a cortisone shot last week, looked like he was lacking some lift in yet another disappointing turn during the Three-Point Contest at the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. He then proceeded to do this during the actual All-Star game on Sunday, though, so maybe he’s fine:

Incidentally, Hawks point guard Trae Young narrowly beat out Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine to earn the fifth starting spot in the East next to Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (though DeMar got in as a guard for some reason). Zach was voted onto his second straight All-Star team as a reserve of course, so all is forgiven.

The 23-year-old Young is enjoying another excellent offensive season, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds a night. He’s always been a relatively bad and disengaged defender, and luckily for the Bulls that trend should continue tonight (so here’s hoping Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu can capitalize).

Ayo jammed his right thumb during the Rising Stars game on Friday at All-Star Weekend, but is apparently available tonight. Given how thin the Bulls are at the guard position, Ayo’s availability cannot be undervalued.

The Bulls have won both their previous matchups against the Hawks this season by double-digits in a pair of high-scoring affairs. Chicago bested Atlanta 130-118 on December 27, and then won again two days later with a pretty similar tally, 131-117. Chicago’s two best players, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, led the way on offense in both meetings. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

The Hawks are mostly healthy outside of up to two absences in the front court. John Collins, the team’s second-leading scorer, has been out for two weeks with a right foot strain, and has been listed as doubtful to play tonight. That could be a lucky break for the Bulls, who would have to combat the 6’9”, 235-pound Collins with 6’4”, 205-pound forward Javonte Green on defense.

After a rough start to the 2021-22 season, the Hawks have slowly rounded into form with a respectable 28-30 record. In the talented East, however, that only puts them in the tenth seed for now, 5.5 games behind the sixth seed. It’s a far cry from the expectations heading into the year for a team that lost to the eventual champs in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

On offense, the Bulls could look to feature center Nikola Vucevic. He notched 24 points, 17 boards, six dimes and four blocks in the December 27 victory, and then 16 points and 20 boards on December 29.

Where the Bulls may really struggle is in containing Hawks guards Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic, two expert scorers and facilitators. In the absence of Ball and Caruso, Chicago has had trouble stopping quick guards. Starting shooting guard Kevin Huerter, nailing 37.7% of his 5.1 three-point looks per game, could also benefit from a night without Ball or Caruso.

At 38-21, the Bulls are tied with Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Chicago enjoyed a relatively easy schedule heading into the break and has won five straight games. A home game against the Hawks should yield another victory, but the continued absence of three key Bulls rotation players could turn things into a shootout again. Thankfully, the team has managed to win shootouts before, and the King of the Fourth should bail out the Bulls if things stay too close at the end of the night.

Injury Report:

For the Bulls, Lonzo Ball (recovering from a bone bruise and meniscus tear in his right knee), Alex Caruso (dealing with a fractured right wrist) and Patrick Williams (rehabilitating torn ligaments in his left wrist) are still out. We did receive some good news on the recovery timelines of all three players during a Billy Donovan presser yesterday. Donovan expects Caruso to begin exercises with a basketball in his right hand by early next week at the latest. Lonzo is continuing to recover on pace for his projected six-to-eight-week return timeline. Williams’s cast and brace for his wrist are gone, and he has started doing some dribbling and shooting exercises. Donovan cautions that the power forward still needs to work on strengthening the impacted wrist.

On the Hawks side of the equation, $125 million starting power forward John Collins (drafted 12 spots behind Lauri Markannen in 2017, by the way) has been listed as doubtful to suit up tonight. Reserve center Gorgui Dieng will be sidelined.

Game Time: 7 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago