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Portland Trail Blazers at Chicago Bulls Preview

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Portland will try to start the New Year off right against the hot Bulls.

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (18-17) at Chicago Bulls (13-23)

Monday, January 1 - 5:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Damian Lillard (questionable)
Bulls injuries: Cameron Payne (out), Zach LaVine (rehab assignment in the G-League)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Blog a Bull

After a disappointing loss against the Atlanta Hawks, the team with the worst record in the NBA, the Blazers will try to bounce back against the Bulls. An adequate, if uninspired, first half gave way to the Blazers coughing up their six-point halftime lead (and then some), losing 104-89. 20 turnovers, 28 percent 3-point shooting, and very poor interior defense all contributed to a night to forget.

The Bulls will be a little disappointed they didn’t close out the Washington Wizards on Sunday. Chicago took a six-point lead into the fourth quarter and looked poised to win their fourth game in a row, but they fell 114-110 in Washington. The schedule makers did the Blazers a favor as the Bulls will be on an airplane on New Year’s Eve, facing the Blazers on the second of a back-to-back, albeit it in Chicago.

What to watch for

  • Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls were 3-20 without Mirotic but are an astounding 10-3 since he returned from a teammate-inflicted injury. His improved shooting has been notable, especially his 48 percent mark from deep. Against defenders who can match up size-wise, he drags them out of the paint. If teams try to play small-ball, he out-muscles his defender or simply shoots over them. He’s not the only reason the Bulls’ fortunes have improved, but keeping him in check is vital for the Blazers having a good evening in the Windy City.
  • Rebounding. Since Dec. 8 when Mirotic returned, the Bulls have the fourth-best rebounds per game average in the NBA. The Blazers? 23rd over the same period of time. Chicago has been especially good at securing defensive rebounds. Since Dec. 8, the Bulls have pulled down 81.3 percent of all defensive rebounds, good for second in the NBA. With the Blazers having some difficulty shooting lately—especially from 3-point land—Portland will either need to hit the offensive glass hard or simply hope their shots fall.
  • Can the Blazers play four quarters of good defense? The Blazers are statistically sound on defense. The problem is they haven’t been consistent lately, and when they have been OK all too often, an acceptable defensive performance has been undone by poor offense. Portland has scored over 100 only twice in the last eight games, and one of those was a loss. In Chicago’s last eight games, they’ve averaged over 108 points per game. If the Blazers can’t keep Chicago to somewhere near 100 points, it’s hard to imagine them coming away with a victory.

What they’re saying

K. C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune talks about the Bulls and a possible trade just as Zach LaVine is getting close to playing:

“We’re playing so well you don’t want to interfere with that,” LaVine said, when asked if he would be disappointed if management slowed the team’s roll via a trade just as he prepared to return.

“But that’s not a decision for me or anybody on the team. We go out there to play and win and prove ourselves and impress. That’s what we’re going to do.”

There’s no doubt the Bulls have impressed of late. Over their last 12 games, they have ranked second in pace, third in defensive rating, fourth in scoring, fifth in assists, sixth in 3-point percentage and eighth in shooting, according to www.nba.com/stats.

Adding LaVine to the mix — if that mix remains intact — should only help.

Mirotic is playing great and the team is now winning, so that means everything is all hunky-dory in the locker room, right? Maybe not completely, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

The real question, however, is whether Mirotic’s confidence is rubbing off on his teammates or simply rubbing them the wrong way. It depends on which Bulls player you talk to.

‘‘We’re not going to let the things he says ruin the team, ruin the team mood or whatever,’’ guard Denzel Valentine said. ‘‘That’s how he feels. He’s a competitor. We can’t take it as he means that derogatory to anybody.

Easy Eis on Blog a Bull goes deep on Mirotic’s hot start to his delayed season:

Mirotic has been nothing short of brilliant since returning to a Bulls team that desperately craved a confident offensive player. Through his first ten games of the season, Mirotic posted a line of 18.5 points per game on a 63.1% true shooting, a scalding 48.3% mark from distance on a whopping 5.8 attempts per game, and 7.6 rebounds per game on an insane-for-a-PF 29% defensive rebounding percentage. His freethrow shooting and assist numbers are a bit down, but history speaks to how prolific of a contributor Mirotic can be from the charity stripe, and anybody that watches him regularly knows how gifted of a playmaker he is...