Previewing Bulls-Lakers, Where Pau Gasol is Back!

That's right, folks. The Chicago Bulls have won the Pau Gasol Sweepstakes! As their prize, they get to be the first to have to plan for not only Kobe, Bynum, LO, and Ron Ron, but also the might Spaniard, Pau Gasol! Aren't they lucky?

Actually, no. While he may be a bit rusty in his first game back, he also has a history of performing well against the Bulls. In their two-game regular season series last year, Gasol led the Lakers in scoring, averaging 28.5 points per game, as well as 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game in 35.5 minutes. The Lakers won both games, the final scores of which were virtually identical:  116-109 at Staples Center, and 117-109 at United Center.

Suffice it to say that while no NBA team, executive, coach, or player wishes injury on another, the Bulls wouldn't have minded if Gasol had sat out one more game.

On the other hand, Derrick Rose also fared pretty well in those two meetings from last season, averaging 25 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds in 37.5 minutes per game. With the point guard position being the Lakers most vulnerable point defensively, and our weakest matchup, this could continue to be a problem. But before we get into that, let's look at the Lakers coming in.

 

The Lakers Right Now

8-3, 3rd in West, 105.4 ORtg, 102.3 DRtg, 94.4 Pace

 

The Lakers were looking great mid-last week. Had power rankings been done about a week ago, the Lakers likely would have held the top spot. But then they lost two straight, neither of which was close, and we started to realize that the win over Phoenix might have had just as much to do with their weary legs and rough early schedule as it did with out supposed dominance.

With Pau Gasol out until now, much of the season to date has revolved around Kobe Bryant — to an extent that we really hadn't expected with a team still so talented. Simply put, the team has mostly risen and fallen with him. In the early going, when his post game was impossibly dominant and the Lakers were getting it to him as often as they possibly could, LA rolled. After a bit, teams adjusted to that strategy, packing the defense into the paint and forcing Kobe to go outside, and the Lakers to get other players involved. They were slow to adapt, not doing either of these things well, and that led to poor performances overall.

Simply put, teams knew what Kobe was going to do, and they knew the rest of the Lakers weren't looking to do anything but pass to him. It made the Lakers predictable, and quite stoppable, and stopped they were.

On Tuesday, the entire situation looked much improved. Okay, we can give Kobe a pass for getting excited about his new and improved post game, and we can give his teammates a pass for being mesmerized by it and wanting to see more of it. They got a bit infatuated with that lone offensive weapon, but they seem to have snapped out of it. Two nights ago, they were passing the ball, getting other players involved, and playing as a team. Kobe was playing a fully balanced game, running pick-and-rolls on the perimeter, attacking off the dribble from the wings, and of course, still adding a good measure of post play. For two dominant quarters, they were unstoppable — and the story of those quarters was more one of interest and effort than anything else.

On the defensive end, they were engaged, working hard. The perimeter defense was suffocating, even from guys like Farmar, Brown, and yes, D-Fish. Meanwhile, I was pretty impressed with Bynum, who was challenging guards on switches, moving his feet, altering shots, and going after rebounds. If the Lakers play with the interest and motivation they did in those middle two quarters, this game won't be a problem. If they play with the sloppiness and laziness of the first quarter, and if the bench is as disconnected and just plain bad as they were in the fourth quarter, this is a Bulls team that can beat us.

 

Speaking of Pau Gasol

 

It's the first time we'll be seeing him this year, so let's talk about Pau Gasol, since we haven't yet. Don't expect him to play heavy minutes; Gasol has worried vocally about his conditioning, and Phil Jackson has said that he'll be happy if Pau can go for 25 minutes. On the other hand, I wouldn't be too worried about what kind of shape his knee is in. He took things very cautiously and slowly — much the opposite of the "if I can breathe without a respirator and have at least one good leg, I'm playing" mentality of one Kobe "Round-theClock Treatment" Bryant — so it seems safe to assume that if he's coming back, it means that leg is in pretty good shape.

The good news is that we could get a fairly healthy dose of Gasol while he's in. After playing without him for 11 games, I wouldn't be surprised if his teammates are looking for him a bit more than usual. If his shot is falling, he's got the skills to really do some damage. Most of all, though, his passing will be a welcome addition to the Lakers half court set. I was pleased with Bynum's passing against Detroit, but I don't know that there's a big man in the league that has Gasol's passing skills. At the same time, his mere presence on the court is likely to encourage a more balanced game both from Kobe, and from the Lakers — and as we saw on Tuesday, that's a recipe for success.

Bottom line:  This is the guy that Kelly Dwyer has been repeatedly calling the best power forward in the NBA, and I'm inclined to agree with him. While he may be a bit rusty to start out, there's simply no way to put a negative spin on getting back a player of that caliber.

 

The Bulls Coming In

6-4, 7th in East, 98.0 ORtg, 99.5 DRtg, 92.3 Pace

 

The Bulls are a pretty lopsided team. Their defense is 4th best in the league, allowing only 98 points per 100 possessions (for reference, the Lakers are allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions). On the other hand, their offense is just abysmal, averaging 98 points per 100 possessions — for the mathematically challenged among you, that's less than one point per possession. As you know if you've been paying attention around here, that is NOT good.

As a team, the Bulls take an inordinate number of long twos and mid-range jumpshots, while attempting significantly fewer inside and three-point attempts than most teams in the league. Translated, that means they're taking a lot of the least efficient shots on the court, and not enough of the most efficient shots.

The defensive strategy for the Lakers, then, should be easy: push the Bulls into their already established tendencies. Pack it into the paint and chase them off the three-point line, and they'll almost do the Lakers work for them, settling for low percentage two-point shots.

On the other hand, Derek Rose has vowed to be more aggressive offensively, accurately noticing that his offensive struggles are the result of settling for low quality shots and an overall passiveness on offense. Rose has committed to attacking the paint and playing more aggressively as of this game — how he fares against the likes of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom is yet to be seen, but if the Lakers are hoping to lull the Bulls into taking low percentage shots, they should be aware that it is Rose's intention to do the exact opposite.

Joakim Noah seems to be the story of the Bulls, lately. He's not an extraordinary NBA talent, but the guy just works harder, more consistently, than most players in the NBA. He's an effort player who can really inject his team with energy, and that effort is contagious.

For a Lakers team that is criticized for their effort more than anything else, this could be the story of the game. If the Lakers come out expecting a walk in the park and an easy win, without putting in solid effort and playing hard, the Bulls will have a chance to steal this game. If they buckle down and plan to earn this win, their talent is such that this Bulls team simply isn't good enough to play with them when they're working hard and playing well.

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