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Game 16 Preview: Bulls vs. Blazers

Game Time:  7:00 p.m. Pacific  TV:  Comcast and NBATV

The Bulls come into town with a 6-6 record.  Don't let the .500 record fool you.  They've played well given the caliber of opponent they've faced so far season.  The high point came on November 5th when they beat the Cavaliers in Cleveland in a defensive knuckle-buster that saw LeBron James thwarted by Chicago's forwards as he tried to steal the game with the final possession.   They also have a win over San Antonio under their belts plus the usual Eastern taking care of business victories.  They haven't really had a low moment per se.  4 of their 6 losses have come against powerhouse teams (Denver, L.A., Boston) and the other two were Philly and Toronto.  When they lose they do tend to lose big, but that's somewhat expected against those opponents.

One of the good storylines coming out of the Windy City is the coming of age of Joakim Noah.  In his first two years in the league he looked far more likely to replace local icon Oprah Winfrey than Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman.  But he put on muscle over the summer and he's now become a rebounding terror, averaging 12.3 per game, over 4 offensive, for the year.  He's starting to post a double-double every night.  The Bulls have scoring and skills at multiple positions but they lacked a brusier.  Noah is making his bid and doing a convincing job of it.  For that reason alone the Blazers won't be facing last year's Bulls tonight.

On the other hand draft wonder Derrick Rose has gotten off to a slow start, at least partially because of ankle trouble.   He's down a few minutes per game and his stats are reflecting that.  He still causes trouble but it hasn't been enough to put Chicago over the top in most games.  In fact they've lost every game that he's led the team in scoring, including the last two in a row.  He doesn't look entirely comfortable with his own game, let alone his position relative to his teammates yet.  But it's a sure bet that another 20-point game or two will put him back in the saddle.

The instability at the point guard position has had ripple effects at the other scoring positions.  Small forward Luol Deng and forward/guard John Salmons haven't had bad seasons as much as inconsistent ones.  Granted neither is a stranger to fluctuation but both are ending up on the lower side of average overall and each has experienced horrific nights.  Center Brad Miller has also been up and down and his downs, mostly drastic, have coincided with facing athletic opposing centers.  Guard Kirk Hinrich is suffering more shooting woes than normal and has seen the bottom fall out of his game recently.

In short, like Gumpian Chocolate you never know what you're going to get from Chicago players individually.  They've got enough talent to beat the teams they should but they haven't yet pulled that talent together enough to beat the teams they want to.

The Bulls are a low-scoring team but that's not necessarily by design.  Their offensive-game is mid-range perimeter-oriented.  They're not good at shooting the three and they're not good at scoring in the paint.  They want to break you down, take their jumper, and try to rebound misses for put-backs.  It's not necessarily a recipe for success but it does fit with most of their talent.  They'd probably like to run more but they need the right personnel in the game to do it and those folks aren't their best players.  Right now they're forced to hang their hat on their defense, planning on scoring just enough to make up the difference.  They need more frontcourt athleticism and they need somebody else to step up on the wing.  They might or might not have those players under development but it's a pretty sure bet they don't have them ready to go now.

In the end the Bulls qualify as an "almost" team.  They've got almost enough scoring talent, almost enough rebounding, almost enough defense, almost enough cohesiveness, but they're not quite there in any of those categories.  Some nights it all comes together and "almost" becomes reality.  Some nights it remains "almost".  We'll see what happens tonight.

Pivotal Points to the Game

1.  Greg Oden.  Whether they put Miller or Noah on him he needs to score from the post, draw fouls, and generally make them miserable.  I don't think he'll need to worry about guarding Miller on the perimeter on the other end as that seems like a job for LaMarcus while Greg takes Noah.  So he should be able to camp out in that lane nice and cozy all night.  Take advantage.

2.  Derrick Rose might cause harm (especially against us) but he's still not in position to win games by himself yet.  You really have to watch out for easy buckets from Deng and Salmons though.  They're both a handful when they get rolling and they usually get rolling by taking it to the rim.  Keep them shooting jumpers and you're OK.  Let them run out or penetrate and their points along with Rose's will spell trouble.

3.  The Bulls don't shoot threes often and they don't shoot them well.  However you handle rotations tonight, however you handle pick and roll plays, however you play your man individually, remember to make them prove it from the outside before you commit to covering that shot and cede the lane.  You really can keep these guys from scoring easily by sagging off of them and playing for the drive most nights.

4.  Rebound.  Watch out for Noah and Taj Gibson.  Keep them off of the glass and the rest of your rebounders should beat the rest of theirs.

5.  Their perimeter defenders do get around so you're going to be covered on most of your jumpers (unless they employ the same strategy as in #3 above).  Realize this.  Also realize that their interior defense is less than intimidating and that if you get a step on them off the dribble the world is your oyster.  They're a good defensive team but they're not an airtight defensive team.  Make sure you probe them and don't make them look better than they are.

Final Thoughts and Links

This game isn't the test for the Blazers but it's a test.  This isn't a game Portland should lose at home.  I doubt they'll destroy the Bulls as they did last year but they should be able to handle them.

Check out the always-entertaining BlogaBull.

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--Dave (