The Portland Trail Blazers take on the Chicago Bulls tonight in a game televised locally at 5:00 p.m. on CSNNW.
Much like the Bucks on Tuesday night, the Bulls are a lower-level Eastern Conference playoff team playing at the same relative level (18-15) at home or away. That barely-above-.500 home record offers a ray of hope for the Blazers. Then again the Bucks handed Portland one of the more decisive defeats of their season. Your mileage may vary.
Chicago's starting frontcourt has remained relatively unchanged throughout the season. Joakim Noah mans the center position to the tune of 12 points and 12 rebounds per game. He's a strong offensive rebounder and a good defender. Lacking firepower around him to distract opposing defenders, his offense has slipped. The story's similar for power forward Carlos Boozer. He rebounds and defends well enough and he's an offensive threat but not a pure scorer on his own (15 points, 9 rebounds). Small forward Luol Deng leads the team in scoring at 16 ppg. His field goal percentage has picked up this year, bucking Chicago's frontcourt trend. His three-point percentage has gone to heck, but he's attempting fewer threes and his per-minute scoring production has risen. Combined they're a smart, veteran, crew committed to defense, rebounding, and holding up their end of the offense even if they're not amazing individual scorers.
The original plan was to pair this B+ frontcourt with Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton in the backcourt, creating a powerful offense-defense combination. Both Rose and Hamilton are out, ripping out the heart of Chicago's contention hopes. Veteran Kirk Hinrich stepped into the gap for much of the season, adding three-point shooting and even more defense, but he's injured too. In their last game versus the Nuggets the Bulls started Nate Robinson at point guard and Marco Belinelli at shooting guard. Those two will try to hold up the offensive end of the deal, but defense is conspicuously absent. This puts undue pressure on the frontcourt. It also means the Bulls have no bench to speak of. Small forward Jimmy Butler is their main man in a rotation that never goes deeper than 8 and sometimes gets down to only 6.
Any discussion of the Bulls as a team has to start with the Tom Thibodeau-crafted defense. The Bulls are the Greco-Roman wrestlers of the NBA. They want to slow you down, grind you up, hook you into a hold from which you cannot escape (though you'll spend 48 minutes trying). They don't care if they make the highlight reel or playing pretty. They don't care about superstar status. You're going to walk in grinning like a prima donna and walk out limping, wondering how they managed to catch you like that. Slow pace, don't gamble, no easy points allowed, defend the paint first and use guard quickness to rotate on the three-point shot. That's the mantra. As mentioned, Belinelli and Robinson put a crimp in that style. The Bulls have allowed 5 of their last 7 opponents to score over their points-allowed average. Still, these guys are seldom an easy night for your offense.
Chicago's offense is similarly slow-paced but also inefficient. They don't score on the break. They're OK in the paint but they lack the jump shooters to free up the middle...a direct and simple explanation for the shooting percentages of their big men sinking. Your best bet against the Bulls is to clog the lane, prevent the offensive rebound (by far the most dangerous aspect of their offense), and dare those former-reserve guards to beat you. Robinson can score a ton when he gets rolling. Belinelli can stroke the three. Neither one inspires real fear. Chicago has turnover and continuity issues on offense. You can usually see where they're going on any given set. Defend screens, keep somebody in the lane and you're all but assured they're going to use clock trying to find a decent shot.
Portland has natural advantages at the guard positions and their ability to score without fast break or paint points. The Blazers just don't take many of the shots the Bulls' defense is designed to stop. Damian Lillard matched up with Nate Robinson should be a sight to behold. Milwaukee presented a backcourt conundrum, as either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis going off would help the Bucks far more than Lillard going off would help the Blazers. That's inverted tonight. Robinson can score 30 and the Bulls can still lose, as his offense doesn't help his teammates. If Robinson scores 30 and Lillard scores 25 you can bet plenty of other Blazers will be open...a win for Portland. Wesley Matthews should be able to match Belinelli as well.
The frontcourt is more of a mystery. LaMarcus Aldridge is a plus but Boozer has pushed him around before. He'll depend on Portland's shooters to spread the floor, as holding the ball for slow post moves is unlikely to produce results against this defense. J.J. Hickson is primed to get killed by the equally-mobile (but bigger) Noah. And who knows about Nicolas Batum anymore? The Blazers probably can't win on the strength of their backcourt alone. Nor are the Blazers comfortable playing walk-and-grind basketball. They thrive on ball movement, crisp cuts. Getting held and bullied frustrates their pretty-basketball ways.
The bench is a mixed blessing. Chicago doesn't have good reserves to throw in the game, so it's not like Portland's bench will be overmatched by their counterparts. On the other hand, Chicago solves this problem by playing Deng and company 50 minutes in a 48-minute game. If Portland's bench gives Chicago's starters a de facto vacation on the floor, Portland's own starters are in for a rough ride.
If the Blazers are going to get a win on this trip, this is the most likely game remaining. The rough, tough Atlanta Hawks are a tall order tomorrow on the second night of a back-to-back. The only other crazy--but quite Blazer-esque--scenario is an 0-4 start to the trip followed by the miracle win against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the last, and most difficult, game. Because of that, and lingering embarrassment from Milwaukee, one would assume the Blazers would come out motivated tonight. We should know early what kind of night it will be. A high-scoring, loose game will favor Portland even if Chicago is scoring too. Slow and tight equals a long, long night.
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