The Chicago Bulls come to Portland tonight for the second game of a back-to-back following a loss in Denver, attempting to break the Blazers' current eight-game winning streak.
Unfortunately for Chicago -- a tough, defensive-minded team behind coach Tom Thibodeau -- they'll be without one of their best perimeter defenders for the next several games, starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler. He's also the second-most accurate outside shooter for Chicago, so the Bulls will take a hit on both sides of the ball with Butler on the sideline.
Chicago's starting center Joakim Noah and backup power forward Taj Gibson are among the league's best at protecting the rim. Carlos Boozer, who starts in the post opposite Noah, is not good at defending the paint, though -- he allows opposing players to convert over 56 percent of their attempts when he's guarding them in the middle, according to NBA.com. Boozer does, however, clean up the defensive glass well.
The Bulls, as a team, are elite defensively -- at least, within the arc. They don't allow opponents to shoot over 40 percent from the field on average and give up fewer points in the paint than any team in the league at 32.4 a game, which is right around what the Blazers score inside (32.8, good for No. 29 in the NBA).
Around the perimeter, Chicago is an easier nut to crack, giving up 19 three-point attempts per game at a 38.4 percent clip. With Butler out, guards Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy and forward Luol Deng will have a rough time curbing Portland coach Terry Stotts' opportunistic outside shooting attack. Also consider the Bulls lost last night at high-altitude in Denver and have two games in the next three days; Chicago should be tired and might conserve a bit of energy. The ball movement of the Blazers should continue providing open looks for their shooters, even against a Bulls team that takes great pride in its defense.
Chicago will fast break occasionally, but they seem to prefer a half-court offense centered around the scoring of Rose, Deng and Boozer.
Rose is always a threat to penetrate, but since coming back from a season-long knee injury, his game has suffered in almost every aspect; he's experiencing career-lows in scoring, true and effective field-goal percentages, assists, rebounds, steals and minutes. Rose is also turning the ball over more than he ever has. He's still not good from deep, though he takes 5 outside shots a game. Rose isn't yet the same player he was pre-injury, and it's shown in his first nine games back.
Deng also started the season in a slump, but he's played much better basketball lately. He takes almost half his shots in the key and gets to the line often, where he's one of the best in the league at converting. Portland wings Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright will have a tough task preventing Deng from attacking the hoop and drawing a ton of fouls. Fortunately for the Blazers, their bigs have done a better job of playing straight-up this year and don't give up very many fouls, which may help limit the effectiveness of Deng's ability to penetrate and get to the free-throw line. He's also been horrible from outside so far, posting a sub-20 percent average from downtown.
Boozer is a solid rebounder who scores pretty well near the hoop, though a third of his points come from the mid-range. He dominates the ball when Rose doesn't have it, and is one of the most efficient scorers the Bulls have. Still, he's only good for about 16 points a game and his poor defense offsets some of his offensive production.
The Blazers defend the three-point line better than any team in the NBA, and the Bulls only have one legitimate healthy threat to score from deep in wing Mike Dunleavy. He cashes in on a scorching 54.5 percent of his threes, but he only takes a few attempts a game. In fact, the Bulls pretty much stay away from the outside shot altogether, except on catch-and-shoot opportunities created by penetration.
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge has historically done well against the Bulls, and tonight should be no exception if he's got his mid-range shot dialed in. Boozer will likely allow Aldridge to score in his usual variety of ways, but Gibson and Noah present a much more formidable low-post defensive duo. Keep an eye on those two when Aldridge has the ball, because they'll no doubt be focused on limiting his attempts near the hoop and both give up very few points near the basket.
Point guard Damian Lillard -- who's been driving a ton this year but has shot terribly off the dribble from inside the arc -- may want to kick the ball out more often tonight for open looks on the perimeter instead of challenging Chicago's elite paint defense. Lillard does a solid job of drawing fouls and getting to the line, but he's much more of a threat from behind the three-point line right now.
Guard Wesley Matthews is still on fire from deep, nailing half of his three-pointers. Wright and Batum have also converted well on their outside shots. Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Wright and backup guard Mo Williams should continue looking to bomb from deep, because the Bulls allow teams to convert from outside. This is doubly so with Butler out, as he's one of Chicago's best individual defenders and his minutes will be replaced by Hinrich and Dunleavy, both of whom are much older and a step slower than Butler.
Both teams are good at rebounding, but Noah and Boozer are better individual rebounders than anyone in Portland's frontcourt rotation. Deng also picks up a fair amount of rebounds. Aldridge, backup forward Thomas Robinson and centers Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland will have to compete hard for boards against the Bulls frontcourt. The Blazers' ancillary rebounders -- Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Wright -- are all as good or better than their Chicago counterparts at chipping in on the glass, though. This has been a huge contribution to Portland's winning ways, and the group effort on the boards should continue against Chicago.
Following five consecutive wins in which no opposing team scored over 94 points, the Bulls finally coughed one up against the Denver Nuggets last night, losing by 10. Chicago's perimeter defense is significantly weakened with Butler missing, and it showed against the Nuggets when they allowed 42.9 percent on 21 three-point attempts. The Bulls' offense also played disjointed, not converting well from anywhere.
Though Chicago's played well in several recent games prior to last night, they've shown some cracks in their armor early this season. Rose is still playing into form, they're missing one of their best individual defenders and they allow teams to connect from deep. Portland's blueprint that's led to them winning 10 games so far should remain relatively unchanged against the Bulls tonight. If the Blazers execute Stotts' usual offensive game plan that is heavy on ball movement, open shots from deep and a steady diet of Aldridge touches, they'll have a great opportunity tonight to extend their winning streak. Defensively, they should continue to limit attempts from outside (they're the best team in the NBA at doing so), force Chicago into less efficient mid-range shots and crash the boards hard.
The Blazers start a much tougher stretch of their schedule at home tonight against the Bulls, and a win would keep the streak going and the confidence high as Portland rounds out the first full month of the season and heads toward Thanksgiving near the top of the Western Conference.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter