7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Chicago -2
Division leaders clash tonight in the Windy City as the Chicago Bulls host the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers at the United Center. You would be hard-pressed to find a team that has been hotter over the past few months than Blazers (17-5), who have now won fourteen out of their past sixteen outings. However, they did suffer defeat in Minnesota (92-80) Wednesday Night, 24 hours after besting Detroit in the Motor City (98-86). A night after shooting a healthy 48.8% from the field and in turn smothering the hosts on the defensive end (35.1%), Terry Stotts’ charges came out overtly flat against the Timberwolves. The visitors only shot 38.8% from the field, including a miserable 10-of-35 from beyond the arc (28.6%), while also committing a careless twenty turnovers. Defensively, Portland was stout, limiting the young ‘Wolves to a mere 39.5% shooting themselves, including a scant 1-of-12 from three (8.3%), but the difference came from the charity stripe, where the hosts netted 25-of-33 of their free-throws (75.8%), opposed to just 10-of-12 (83.3%) for the LaMarcus Aldridge and Co. It was simply a case of aggression for the Blazers, which they clearly did not have; Minnesota completely battered them on the glass (56-38), including a ridiculous 20-11 advantage on the offensive boards, which of course led to a wealth of second-chance opportunities and subsequent trips to the free-throw line. Alrdirdge who has played at a near-MVP level this season, looked particularly fatigued on the back end of a back-to-back, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting (21.4%), with nine rebounds, an assist, and a pair of blocks, but five turnovers. Damian Lillard led the team with 23 points, but needed 24 shots to do it (37.5%), and couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean from distance, where he made a dreadful two of his dozen attempts (16.7%).
After winning their first Playoff Series in fifteen years, many wondered just what this Portland team had in store for the 2014-2015 campaign, particularly given so many of their contemporaries in the stacked Western Conference managed to improve themselves. Viewed as a pleasant surprise this season, nobody in league circles thought that Stott’s charges could be quite this good. While the Blazers were one of the better offensive teams in the league last year, their collective downfall came on the defensive end, where they simply didn’t manage to get enough stops against quality offensive teams. In 2013-2014, they allowed an average of 102.8 points (22nd overall) on 45.1% shooting (11th overall), including a league-worst 69.5% inside the three-points arc, while also ranking dead-last in both steals (5.5) and turnovers (12.0), leading to an NBA-low 11.0% Turnover Percentage. This season, they exhibited significant improvement in this regard, limiting their opponents to 95.3 points (12th overall) on 42.8% shooting from the field (3rd overall), including a vastly improved 46.3% inside the arc (4th overall). Granted, they still don’t force many turnovers (12.0), but better rim protection has made a world of difference for this club. Whereas Robin Lopez was one of the smartest under-the-radar signings of the previous Offseason, the acquisition of Chris Kaman this past Summer was equally brilliant; Lopez’s presence afforded Aldridge the luxury of playing farther away from the rim while not having to defend the litany of rugged big men in the Western Conference, and the addition of Kaman has given Stotts another big body capable of playing starter’s minutes, who can defend the paint without much help. In essence, Portland doesn’t sacrifice anything when Lopez heads to the bench. Think of the two as the enforcer on a Hockey Team, keeping the star clean and free to make plays. Honestly, that description doesn’t quite do the veteran justice, for the 32-year old has always sported an underrated offensive repertoire. After a lost season with the Lakers, Kaman has made the most of his 19.0 minutes of action, averaging a solid 10.4 points 50.3% shooting, including 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. The eleventh-year veteran, along with experienced Point Guard Steve Blake have proven invaluable to a team that lacked precious depth throughout the previous campaign.
Meanwhile, the Bulls (13-8) continue to try to find their footing this season despite a number of injuries that have afflicted their roster. We know, stop us if you’ve heard that line before. Sadly, the relative health of this team is once again the topic of discussion; while former MVP Derrick Rose continues to re-acclimate himself to the game from multiple knee surgeries, Reigning Defensive Player of the year Joakim Noah has been plagued by a nagging ankle sprain, with fellow big man Pau Gasol suffering from the effects of a sore shoulder. Getting all three of these guys on the court together has been the real challenge for Tom Thibodeau, who has still managed to guide his charges to first place in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division. Chicago bounced back from a 112-102 defeat against Golden State with an absolute pasting of tanking Brooklyn, hammering the Nets 105-80 Wednesday Night. Even without the services of Noah, the Bulls put on a defensive clinic, relegating the visitors to a miserable 33.0% shooting, including just 3-of-14 from beyond the arc (21.4%), and outrebounding them 57-44. In turn, the hosts enjoyed a balanced performance offensively, with six players scoring in double-figures, including all five of the game’s starters. Chief among them was Rose, who showed flashes of the explosive playmaker he was before the unfortunate series of injuries; a game after shooting a terrible 2-of-12 against the Warriors, the Point Guard scored a team-high 23 points on an efficient 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%) from the field, including 3-of-7 from downtown (42.9%), along with four rebounds and four assists in just 23:50 of action. The biggest takeaway from the contest was that he was aggressive, particularly when driving to rim, which should be expected after making his eighth consecutive start of the campaign, the most he’s been able to do since March of 2012.
And it’s that gradual return to form that the Bulls are banking on, for a healthy Rose is likely the difference between being a true Championship Contender and a One-and-Done Playoff Team. Over the past three seasons, which equates to 246 games, Rose has only participated in 49, meaning that he has mid.ssed a whopping 197 contests, including the entirety of the 2012-2013 campaign. As good as Chicago has been defensively, and they’ve been great under Thibodeau, they have been almost unwatchable at times on the other end of the court. However, with the return of arose coupled with the presence of Gasol, and the miraculous evolution of Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have quietly morphed into a quality offensive unit. Just take moment to run down be numbers; thus far, this team has averaged 102.7 points (17th overall) on 45.6% shooting from the field (16th overall), including 49.0% from inside the arc (14th overall) and 36.1% from three (13th overall). Granted, we won’t get them confused with the Spurs or Suns, but they’ve improved immensely opposed to last season. And they’re finding multiple ways to score; the Bulls have gotten to the line quite frequently (26.0% FT/FG Ratio, 3rd overall), attempting 582 free-throws (4th overall) and netting 443 of them (3rd overall). Gasol has worked wonders, giving a team that traditionally hasn’t had a low-post scorer, one of the best in the game; the gifted veteran big has averaged 19.8 points on 48.8% shooting from the field, along with 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.2 blocks. Butler has been quite the surprise, posting career-beats in scoring (21.5), rebounds (5.5), assists (3.4), and field goal percentage (49.3%).