There are a few teams in the NBA that are forced to take long road trips due to events taking place in their home arenas. The Lakers have the Grammys. The Spurs have the rodeo. The Bulls have the circus. Right now, it's clown time in Chicago.
In previous seasons, one might have been able to insert some form of clown joke in relation to the Bulls as a team. They haven't been very good since Jordan left, and their best seasons (the previous two) have ended in first round playoff exits, but things are finally looking up. They come into tonight having won five of their previous six games, and seem to be gelling quite well. Long road trips are often thought to be great opportunities for teams to gel even more. since they are forced to spend more time than usual with each other. More team dinners, team activities, chances to bond with each other. For a young team that's playing well, with a bright future, road trips like this could push them further down the road toward becoming elite.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Lakers are already elite, and pretty damn good at home. Fortunately for the Bulls, Carlos Boozer is still out with an injury. After all, he did move East to get away from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
So far on this road trip, the Bulls have done the Texas three-step, sandwiching a loss to San Antonio with wins against Houston and Dallas. They enter Los Angeles with a 7-4 record, going against a Lakers team that is 7-1 at home and 12-2 overall.
Since last season, the Bulls have made the most improvement on the offensive end. Last year Chicago averaged 97.5 points per game (ranked 24th in the NBA) and an offensive rating of 103.5 (27th). This year they have made huge strides under new coach Tom Thibodeau's direction. They've jumped up to 101.5 points per game (ranked 8th) and a 106.7 offensive rating (15th). This major jump in production could be very much based on a better system, but it doesn't hurt for:
1. Derrick Rose to have appeared to have taken "the leap." He's shooting a very solid 48.0 FG% and 34.1 3P% averaging 25.2 points per game, 8.5 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.09 steals in 37.7 minutes. He's a full blown superstar. Please say a prayer for Fish tonight.
2. Luol Deng to have come back to life. He's averaging 18.5 points per game on 41.0 FG% and 37.0 3P%, to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 38.6 minutes. He's the x-factor on this team.
3. Joakim Noah to be playing at an All-Star level. He hustles. He rebounds. He passes. He's passionate. He's KG-lite. Not only is he known as an elite defender (he's 2nd in the NBA in rebounding with 13.3 per game), he's actually helping out on offense by scoring 14.9 points per game on 53.0% shooting. In comparison, Lamar Odom, our reigning SSR Player of the Week, and who just may be playing the best basketball of his life, is averaging around 15 and 10. Noah is no joke.
Defensively, the Bulls are slightly better than they were last season, a trend likely to keep heading in the right direction with defensive whiz Thibodeau at the helm. Let's look at some numbers. In 2009-10, they were actually a decent defensive team. They gave up 99.1 points per game (ranked 13th) and had a defensive rating of 105.3 (11th), while holding opponents to 44.2% field-goal shooting. They ranked 3rd in the NBA in opponents' field-goal percentage. In comparison, the Lakers kept opposing teams to 44.6% field-goal shooting while giving up 97.0 points per game (9th) and having a 103.7 defensive rating (4th). ot quite as good as the Lakers were, and we all know how good last year's Lakers team defense was, but the Bulls weren't too far off. This season, the Bulls have improved. They still give up 44.2% field-goal shooting to opponents (ranked 10th) and 98.3 points per game (11th) with a defensive rating of 103.2 (9th). Not too shabby.
But does any of those shiny numbers matter against this Lakers team? They're juggernauts on offense. They're #1 in scoring and offensive rating by a wide margin. They're deep at every position, and more importantly, versatile with their roster. As pointed out in yesterday's Land O' Lakers podcast, the Lakers can play any style with any number of guys. Kobe, Pau, Lamar, Ron, and Matt Barnes can all play two, three, and/or four positions, both offensively and defensively.
What are some things to look for tonight? Noah's hustle against Pau is a good start. Noah has the kind of length that can frustrate Pau, and Joakim knows how to defend, not just be tall. We might not see that match-up too much though. It appears Taj Gibson might miss tonight's tip-off due to injury, so the Bulls may be forced to start at Omer Asik at center or Brian Scalabrine at power forward. If this happens, look for Pau or Lamar to have a field day, depending on the match-up. It might happen anyway, no matter who plays, since the Bulls just have too many match-up problems with the Lakers. Who's gonna cover Ron Artest? He'll bully any perimeter player Chicago has in the post. What about Kobe? The Bulls start Keith Bogans at SG. Seriously. Then follow him up with Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. Ask Jazz fans how much they bothered Kobe in the past. Luol Deng may get the assignment, but that doesn't deter Kobe much either, and the Bulls will need Deng's offense more than his "defense."
Still, Rose and Noah are good enough to keep this competitive if the Lakers aren't playing 100%, and we all know that's something very likely with Los Angeles. This team is coming together and should look at this game as a measuring stick. They have the tools to make this a a great game. The strong bench of the Lakers versus Chicago's weak second unit could be the difference if the Lakers don't feel like protecting the basket. Especially against Rose.