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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Chicago Bulls Preview

The Blazers try to recover from Wednesday's tough loss to Minnesota when they take on the Chicago Bulls at the United Center tonight.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (17-5) vs. Chicago Bulls (13-8)
Friday, December 12
United Center; Chicago, IL | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: ESPN, CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: C.J. McCollum | Out for the Bulls: Joakim Noah, Doug McDermott
SBN Affiliate: Blog-A-BullTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers attempt to recover from Wednesday's disappointing loss to the Timberwolves when they take on the Chicago Bulls this afternoon.

The Bulls, normally known for their defensive prowess, have flipped the storyline the last couple weeks. Over the last five games, Chicago has averaged 108 points a night. The Bulls have been an average shooting team and have struggled with turnovers at times, but they've been getting solid contributions from a number of players and get to the free throw line consistently.

Chicago's defense hasn't hit its stride yet, playing as ineffective as ever in coach Tom Thibodeau's four years. His team has been pedestrian at defending the three-point line while allowing the opposition to average over 100 points per game over the last five. The Bulls foul a ton, and don't force many turnovers.

Still, Chicago has managed to hold opponents to a league-best 40.4 percent shooting from the field the last couple weeks, so the situation isn't disastrous by any stretch. However, the Bulls' defense hasn't been up to Thibodeau's standards and they'll be without their lynchpin tonight, starting center Joakim Noah, for the second straight game.

Forward Taj Gibson told reporters earlier in the week that he and his teammates lack trust with each other on the defensive end of the floor:

"If we want to win a championship, if we want to win games, our defense has to get better," Gibson said. "It starts by gaining trust. You’ve got a bunch of new guys, you’ve got to communicate better. We’ve got to rebound the ball better. We’ve got to practice better. But it starts with trust."

Thibodeau didn't entirely agree with Gibson's assessment, telling reporter Nick Friedell on Wednesday that he didn't buy "trust" being the issue:

"That's garbage. That's garbage. Trust, it's work. It's work. That's how you build trust. You got to know what you're doing, you got to be tied together. You got to work at it. It's a cop out."

He continued:

"Where you get trust is from the work," Thibodeau said. "The magic is in the work. It's working together, it's timing. It's being tied together. One guy being off is going to hurt you. So you need everyone working together. It doesn't end. You're not going to have it figured out in three days. You're trying to do something great. Nothing great was ever achieved without great work and great effort. It's really that simple."

Gibson stood his ground when told by reporters Wednesday that his coach wasn't on board with what he pointed out earlier:

"It's just new guys," Gibson said. "That's all it is. Most of the guys are coming from teams, they're not really defensive-minded teams first. So of course it's going to happen, but that's just my opinion. That's what I see on the court. I've been here for a while. I know what I'm talking about. Joakim knows what he's talking about, he was the defensive player of the year, of course he's going to know what he's talking about. We're on the court, though."

After a grueling set of practices earlier this week, the Bulls were able to refocus their defensive intensity a couple nights ago at home against the Nets, routing them 105-80 while allowing 33 percent shooting from the floor, 21.4 percent shooting from deep and 16 assists.

Point guard Derrick Rose has played in eight straight contests after missing most or all of the last two-and-a-half seasons with various injuries. He's taken his time getting back up to full-speed, taking a bit of criticism for relying on his outside jumper recently instead of driving to the rim as aggressively as he did prior to this season.

Against the Nets Wednesday night, Rose went 8-of-15 from the floor and 3-of-7 from deep for a team-high 23 points, attacking the basket like his old self. Over the last five games, he's put up a ton of threes at a 30.8 percent clip. If trends from the last game continue, though, Rose will be in the lane far more often, where he's been decent at finishing.

Big man Pau Gasol has been on fire the last five games, hitting over half his shots in that span and pouring in 22.2 points a night. His midrange jumpshot -- which he goes to fairly often -- is falling at a 44.1 percent rate, and over two-thirds of Gasol's scores come in catch-and-shoot situations. With Noah out, he'll play big minutes tonight.

Guard Jimmy Butler has cooled off considerably the last handful of games after starting the season out on a roll. He's still a great interior scorer, but he's not been good lately shooting jumpers on the baseline and his three-point shooting percentage is down to 29.4 percent the last five games. Butler's buoyed his scoring lately by getting to the free throw line for more than eight attempts a night.

Guard Mike Dunleavy Jr. has shot the ball well in recent weeks, and he's received enough praise lately for being an underrated player that we'll soon be calling him overrated. He's attempted 4.6 threes a game the last five at a 43.5 percent rate.

Gibson doesn't shoot a lot, but when he does, it's usually near the basket where he's been underwhelming lately after starting the season out strong. His backup, forward Nikola Mirotic, has struggled from the field the last several games but did score 24 points on 7-for-14 shooting against the Blazers the last time the two teams met on Nov. 21. He'll likely attempt to stretch Portland's defense out again, as he attempted seven three-pointers in the loss three weeks ago, connecting on four of them.

Guards Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich have seen their roles in Chicago's offense reduced since Rose returned from injury eight games ago, but both have gone over 40 percent from deep the last five outings.

Forwards Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell, center Nazr Mohammed and guard E'Twaun Moore may all see some game-time tonight, but none is a huge factor in the Bulls' offense, even without Noah and McDermott suited up.

The Blazers have been, at times, going into auto-pilot mode recently, drifting through games for stretches and turning up the intensity in the closing minutes. This method has worked against weaker teams, but it caught up to them Wednesday night in a beating at the hands of the Timberwolves in which Portland turned the ball over 20 times, gave up 20 offensive rebounds and sent Minnesota to the foul line for 33 attempts while garnering just 12 of their own.

Against the 'Wolves, that kind of performance netted an ugly 8-point loss.

The Bulls, however, are significantly more talented than Minnesota, and the Blazers will have to come out with much better execution and more spirited play tonight. Portland is in the bottom-third of the league the last five games in average points scored, free throws attempted, overall field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. Blazers fans will be hoping that Wednesday's 82-point debacle on the road against the 'Wolves was a wake-up call.

Portland's defense, on the other hand, has been much more stout than the offense. Over the last five games, the Blazers are allowing 92 points per game (No. 2 in the NBA), 21 assists (No. 10), 42.9 percent shooting from the field (No. 8), 25.3 percent shooting from deep (No. 3) while allowing opponents just 18 free throws (No. 5).

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge had a rough night against the 'Wolves, making just three of his 14 shots for nine total points. There is evidence to suggest the Bulls don't defend well against jumpshooting bigs -- particularly those who can extend their shooting range out to the three-point line -- so Aldridge should have some open looks tonight, particularly in pick-and-pop situations.

Point guard Damian Lillard has been getting to the rim fairly often lately, converting his shots inside at a solid 67.9 percent the last five games. His midrange jumper has also been decent. Lillard's struggled mightily from outside the last couple weeks though, making just 20 percent of his threes, including a 2-for-12 performance from deep against the 'Wolves Wednesday night.

Guard Wesley Matthews hasn't been much better than his starting backcourt counterpart the last five games, making under 30 percent of his threes. His midrange shot has been reliable, though, and he's gotten into the paint for a quarter of his attempts. Wing Nicolas Batum's shot is still out-of-sorts, but he's been able to play the role of facilitator. He shot 4-of-6 last time the Blazers played the Bulls a few weeks ago, and may be able to find some good looks against Dunleavy.

Centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman shot better against Minnesota Wednesday night than they have recently, for the most part, and will be playing a Bulls defense without Noah. Gibson, Gasol the 37-year-old Mohammed and two rookies -- Bairstow and Mirotic -- make up Chicago's frontcourt depth, so Lopez and Kaman may look better tonight. Both scored in double figures against the Bulls Nov. 21.

Guards Steve Blake and Allen Crabbe have quietly become Portland's most consistent shooters, hitting 52.6 and 55.6 percent of their field goals the last five games, respectively, and 41.7 and 44.4 percent of their threes. Granted, these rates come in limited attempts, but the Blazers do have bankable guard scoring off the bench right now. Big man Joel Freeland didn't score against the 'Wolves and his shooting lately has dipped.

The Bulls have been the best rebounding team in the NBA the last five games, pulling in over 50 rebounds a night and dominating the Nets on the boards Wednesday, 57-44. They don't bring in a ton of offensive rebounds, but they're definitely a handful on the defensive end. Gasol, in particular, has been a workhorse on the glass lately, and Gibson and Mirotic have been effective.

Portland's rebounding has gone down the tubes recently, capped by the 56-38 shellacking Minnesota hung on them a couple nights ago, which included 20 offensive boards. A repeat performance tonight against Chicago would mean certain death for the Blazers, so they'll have to get back to their early-season form, when they were getting contributions not only from the frontcourt players but also Batum, Matthews and Lillard.

The Bulls appear to be rounding into form with Rose consistently back in the lineup, believing they turned the corner Wednesday night against Brooklyn in a 25-point blowout. On the other hand, they haven't beaten an above-.500 team in three weeks. The Blazers haven't either, though, and both teams will be looking at tonight's matchup as a barometer for where they stand a quarter of the way through the season.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

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