On the heels of a 15-point win in Atlanta that snapped a three-game losing streak, the Blazers land in Chicago tonight to take on the Bulls in the second game of a back-to-back set.
Chicago has won three of its last five games, though two of those wins came against the hapless Sixers. The Bulls have lost to the Thunder and Pacers in that span and most recently defeated Indiana Monday night after dropping a game to them two nights prior.
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau runs a pretty tight seven-man rotation, necessitated by the season-ending injury to All-Star guard Derrick Rose just 11 games into the season and the trade deadline unloading of forward Luol Deng to the Cavaliers for a handful of future draft picks.
Featuring one of the most effective defenses in the league, the Bulls don't often win games via their offense. Averaging 89.2 points per contest (No. 28 in the NBA), 39.9 percent field-goal shooting (No. 29) and 31.8 made field-goals per game (No. 29) over the last five, this Bulls offense sees all seven rotation players attempting between nine and 13.6 shots a night. Fast breaks, points in the paint and three-pointers are all pretty much absent relative to the rest of the league.
So how does Chicago sport a 40-31 record at this point of the season, good for the No. 4 playoff seed in the East? Defense. The Bulls have held opponents to 88 points a game over the last five, allowing just 40.3 percent shooting from the floor and 34.4 percent shooting from deep. They limit assists, points in the paint, fast breaks, three-point opportunities and free-throws. The last team besides the red-hot Spurs to score more than 96 against Chicago was Atlanta, over a month ago.
The Bulls' most aggressive shooter right now is power forward Taj Gibson, who comes off the bench but plays starter minutes. About half his shots come in the paint, the other half from about 10-15 feet. Gibson's made about 46 percent of his field-goals the last couple weeks, a decent scorer at the rim but not particularly efficient from anywhere else.
Point guard D.J. Augustin mostly shoots threes or takes it to the hoop off the dribble, occasionally pulling up from the mid-range. His only reliable shot is his three-pointer, though, as he's made just 37.3 percent of his field-goals the last five games but 38.9 percent of his threes. Guards Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are the other threats from downtown for the Bulls the last five games, hitting 38.1 and 46.7 percent of their three-point attempts, respectively. Besides from beyond the arc, though, both Hinrich and Butler struggle to score consistently.
Center Joakim Noah is the lynchpin in Thibodeau's offense, leading the team in assists with almost seven a game in his last five. He takes most of his shots right under the basket, only drifting outward for a few shots a night. Noah's an average shooter, for the most part.
Forwards Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy have struggled from the field the last couple weeks -- though Dunleavy did go 6-of-12 for 13 points Monday against the Pacers -- both hitting under 40 percent of their shots lately. Half Boozer's shots are jumpers, the rest inside. Dunleavy distributes his shots evenly, and though he's considered a good outside shooter, he's made only a quarter of his long-range attempts the last several games.
Guard Tony Snell and center Nazr Mohammed are at the very end of Thibodeau's rotation, both playing situationally and neither contributing much to the offense.
The Blazers found a bit of a resurgence last night against the Hawks as All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge returned from injury after missing the last seven games, in which his team went 3-4 without him. Aldridge hoisted 21 shots last night, making nine of them and scoring a game-high 25 points, including a 7-7 performance from the free-throw line in 32 minutes. Pulling attention away from the defense and making his presence felt, Aldridge helped provide the floor-spacing on offense that Portland had so desperately missed with him in street clothes.
Point guard Damian Lillard was able to pour in 21 points on 7-15 shooting, including 4-9 from deep. Lillard's hit about a third of his field-goals and 31.4 percent of his threes the last five games, so last night's performance may have signified that he's finally bucking the poor shooting trend that had haunted him for several games.
Wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews were able to settle back into secondary scoring roles last night, with Batum going 5-of-10 from the field and Matthews registering a 4-of-10 outing but hitting 3-of-6 threes. They've both shot in the mid-40s from the floor and in the mid-to-upper-30s from deep the last five games, so they should be able to maintain that efficiency as they won't be relied upon to contribute as much offensively going forward.
Center Robin Lopez took a backseat on offense last night, making four of his seven shots and keeping his recent 63.9 percent field-goal shooting mark going. Forward Dorell Wright shifted from the starting lineup back into a reserve role, still struggling from the field but now in fewer minutes. Guard Mo Williams, wing Will Barton and forward Thomas Robinson represented the end of Portland coach Terry Stotts' playing rotation. Robinson has hit over half his shots the last several games, while Williams and Barton haven't been nearly as efficient.
Guard C.J. McCollum, forward Victor Claver and center Meyers Leonard didn't get off the bench last night after picking up some extended minutes without Aldridge. Now that Stotts' has a mostly full deck, don't expect to see much of McCollum, Claver or Leonard except in spot minutes.
Though they picked up a great road win last night -- the first in four games so far this trip -- the Blazers are still in the bottom-third of the league the last five games with a field-goal percentage of 42.5. The 33.3 percent three-point shooting average in the same span also places near the bottom of the NBA. Portland's assist totals and ability to draw free-throws have been average, though they've managed to hang onto the ball well and lead the league in three-pointers attempted.
The Blazers' defense has looked pretty bad lately, though having Aldridge in the lineup changes the complexion quite a bit. Lopez is allowed to remain more stationary, the leaky perimeter defense has more leeway and opposing power forwards with any degree of versatility aren't a complete mismatch for Portland's defense anymore. If last night's win was any indication -- granted, it was against a pretty weak Hawks lineup -- the team defense is on the rise. Playing against a Chicago squad that really lacks any huge individual scoring threats right now might allow the Blazers to continue easing back into shape on the defensive end.
Gibson, Noah and Boozer are all good individual rebounders, Gibson excelling on the offensive end and the other two dominating the defensive side of the boards. Aldridge came back last night and scooped up 16 rebounds, 5 of them offensive. Lopez, Robinson and Batum have all proven capable on the glass lately. Both the Bulls and Blazers are top-five teams in offensive rebounding percentage this year, but Chicago has the advantage on the defensive end. Expect a dogfight tonight as both teams scrap for rebounds.
Portland wraps up the current five-game road trip tonight before ending the season with an eight-game stretch that will only feature three match-ups with current playoff teams, all of them at home. A win against the Bulls would leave the Blazers at 2-3 on this trip, a respectable salvage job after disappointing losses to the Bobcats and Magic in the last week.
Tonight's game will show if Portland is getting closer to being back on track for the home stretch or if the win in Atlanta was a mirage, a decent squad beating up on an unmotivated host. Also keep in mind the Blazers are ending a long road trip with a back-to-back while Chicago hasn't played since Monday. Either way, though, Portland can at least field a competitive lineup on a nightly basis -- it now comes down to solid effort and execution.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter