HomeSportBulls, Hawks Set for High-Stakes Play-In Clash in Chicago

Bulls, Hawks Set for High-Stakes Play-In Clash in Chicago


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The intensity level immediately ratchets up in the NBA playoffs, where one mistake can abruptly end a team’s championship dreams. But even before the playoffs officially begin, two teams will have everything on the line Wednesday night in a winner-take-all play-in matchup at the United Center in Chicago.

The 9th-seeded Atlanta Hawks and 10th-seeded Chicago Bulls square off with the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference up for grabs. The victor faces either the Miami Heat or Philadelphia 76ers on Friday, with that game’s winner claiming the 8th seed and a first-round date with the Boston Celtics.

For the loser on Wednesday, their season comes to a screeching halt.

Though they split four regular-season meetings, this is unfamiliar territory for both the Bulls and Hawks. Neither team has been part of the play-in format before, heightening the pressure and intrigue around this single-elimination showdown.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while, this is what you play for – to get to the playoffs and have a chance to compete for that Larry O’Brien trophy,” said Hawks guard Dejounte Murray. “But we know the situation, if we don’t take care of business on Wednesday, our season’s over just like that. It’s win or go home.”

Chicago earned hosting rights by their superior 40-42 record to Atlanta’s 38-44 mark. However, the Hawks actually enter on a slight upswing, having won their final three games while the Bulls dropped three of their last five down the stretch.

Still, playing at the United Center gives Chicago a noticeable home-court edge on paper. The Bulls went 27-14 at home this season compared to just 13-28 on the road. Raucous crowds regularly packed the venue and created an inhospitable environment for opponents.

“Any time you get a chance to play at home in front of your fans, it’s huge,” said Bulls guard Alex Caruso. “Our fans have been incredible all season, especially protecting the home court. We’re going to need that energy from them on Wednesday to help carry us over the top.”

Atlanta will likely be shorthanded for the critical play-in tilt, with reserve bigs Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Johnson already ruled out due to injury. But the Hawks will Bank on a handful of dynamic playmakers to try and steal the road win.

Murray has emerged as an All-Star-caliber lead guard this season, averaging 22.5 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game. He’ll be joined in the Atlanta backcourt by sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic, who knocks down over 37% of his three-point attempts.

Up front, John Collins and Clint Capela provide a formidable interior presence on both ends of the floor. Collins is a walking double-double threat putting up 17.1 points and 8.2 rebounds nightly. Capela is one of the league’s premier rebounders and rim protectors.

Of course, Chicago possesses its own set of elite talent, most notably perennial All-Star DeMar DeRozan. The wily veteran wing poured in 24.2 points per contest this season while shooting a blistering 50.5% from the field.

When DeRozan gets a full head of steam going to the basket, he’s nearly unguardable with his array of pump fakes, spins, and up-and-under moves. Keeping him under wraps will undoubtedly be a top priority for the Hawks on Wednesday.

In the backcourt, the Bulls boast a dynamic playmaking duo of Coby White and Patrick Beverley. White is the scorer of the pair, averaging 19.1 points while shooting 38.5% from long range. Beverley brings his trademark tenacity and physicality on the defensive end.

If Chicago has one distinct advantage, it could be on the interior with Nikola Vucevic patrolling the paint. The 6’11” center is a double-double machine, averaging 17.3 points and 11.2 rebounds on the year. His ability to control the glass at both ends could be pivotal.

For two teams that labored just to reach this point, getting eliminated one game shy of the true playoff bracket would be a brutal outcome. That heightened urgency should make for an intense, high-stakes battle from the opening tip.

“We know what’s at stake here – win and you keep playing, lose and your season’s done just like that,” said Bulls head coach Billy Donovan. “I expect both teams to leave it all out on the floor with the highest level of intensity and effort you’ll see.”

Donovan’s squad will have to be wary of looking ahead, even if they emerge victorious. While the prize for winning is a playoff series, the opponent waiting will be extraordinarily daunting.

Either Miami or Philadelphia would present a brutally tough opening-round matchup in their own right. But if the Hawks prevail on Wednesday, they will immediately run into the quarterfinal gauntlet that is the Celtics.

Boston dominated the regular season to the tune of an NBA-best 62 wins. Their juggernaut combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Rayan Neto makes them a nightmare playoff draw.

Before Chicago can look that far ahead though, they have to get past the play-in first. Advancing past that stage has become just as important as any playoff series in the modern NBA landscape.

Just ask teams like the Lakers and Pelicans who saw their seasons end unceremoniously in last year’s play-in. Or the Cavaliers and Raptors who failed to take advantage of the new postseason opportunity.

Every single possession on Wednesday will take on amplified meaning. Every missed boxout, every sloppy turnover, every questionable foul could loom much larger with legacies and reputations on the line.

From Atlanta’s perspective, their injury-riddled campaign would become all the more disappointing with a play-in flameout. For Chicago’s veteran core led by DeRozan, Vucevic, and Beverley, failing to make the playoff field outright could prompt big offseason changes.

The stakes are massive for both franchises. Only one team will live to fight another day for that coveted playoff berth and the unbridled thrill of competing for a championship.

“This is what you live for as a competitor,” DeRozan said. “The opportunity to keep playing, to chase that championship dream…that’s what fuels you in these moments. Just gotta go out there and take it.”

Desperation, determination, and season-ending drama. For one night at least, that’s what the NBA playoffs are all about in this new age of the play-in tournament.


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