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Lakers-Bulls Preview: The Road Trip Begins

The Lakers' victory over the Chicago Bulls back on November 23rd is the closest thing the champs have to a signature win this season. It was, as you might recall, quite the spirited tussle. The Lakers had a nine-point lead in the third quarter, only to fall behind early in the fourth. Not until the Killer B's drained four triples in a six-possession span midway through the final period did the Lake Show get the game securely in hand. Tonight the two teams are at it again, this time in frigid Chicago, where the Bulls have lost only twice this year.

On the surface it might seem like this edition of the Bulls has underachieved so far. In the preseason they were billed as a darkhorse contender in the East, but through their first 20 games they're only 13th in the league in both won-loss record (12-8) and point differential per game (+1.2). Their schedule, though, has been crazy difficult. They've played the Thunder twice, the Nuggets twice, the Lakers of course, the Magic, the Mavericks, the Spurs and the Celtics... twice. Not to mention, more than half of their games have been on the road. Yeeesh. Especially considering that their top free-agent acquisition missed the first 15 games, a 12-8 record is nothing to apologize for.

And speaking of that free-agent acquisition, Carlos Boozer is back. The broken bone in his right hand has healed, allowing him to join Chicago's starting lineup. Reviews of his play have been mixed. His numbers are fine - 21 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes, with a 56% true shooting mark - but he's still figuring out the Bulls' schemes, and he sat out the entire fourth quarter of their close win in Cleveland on Wednesday. It's no surprise that an adjustment period is ongoing: integrating a high-usage player in midseason is rarely easy. His presence does, in any event, lend some much-needed firepower to the Chicago attack, and it'll remind Laker fans how badly the team misses Andrew Bynum. As if any more reminders were needed.

We've seen a lot of Carlos Boozer in recent years. In the last three seasons the Lakers have knocked his Utah Jazz out of the playoffs, and in each of those series he was badly outplayed by Pau Gasol. On offense the seven-foot Gasol plays over Boozer's head. On defense Pau's quickness and height advantage can take Boozer completely out of a game. The Jazz front office correctly interpreted the annual demonstration of this mismatch as a sign they should go in a different direction if they ever want to win the West while Pau is in his prime. Accordingly, they shipped Boozer to Chicago in a sign-and-trade and retooled their frontline around Al Jefferson.

Given the history between the two players, one would imagine that Pau's licking his bewhiskered chops at the thought of facing Boozer again. Problem is, the two won't be playing head-to-head tonight. With Bynum on the shelf (still! *sigh*), Gasol can't man his natural power-forward pozishe. Instead, he has to hold it down at center, where he'll battle Joakim Noah. Unlike Boozer, Noah can match Gasol's size and athleticism. In the Bulls' first meeting with the Lakers he had 19 points and 13 boards and kept Pau mostly in check when the Lakers had the rock. And that was back when Pau was playing well.

The Lakers will need a strong outing from Lamar Odom in this one. More to the point, they need a complete outing from Lamar. On D he'll have his plate full with both Boozer and Taj Gibson, who's now part of the Bulls' second unit. On offense it seems unlikely that Pau will have a big game, so Lamar needs to be aggressive about getting his shot. And he must be productive on the glass. The Bulls' offense is nothing special, but one thing they do well is grab offensive boards. For the year they're 7th in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate, and in the November game they rebounded 32% of their own misses and scored 22 second-chance points. Lamar was very solid in that one, putting up 21 points on 16 shots (including free-throw possessions). MOAR PLZ, LO.

The purp and yellow could also use a big night from the bench. Gibson improves Chicago's reserve unit substantially, but it's still an area where the Lakers should have the advantage. And if I could be so bold, I'd like to request that Derrick Rose not be allowed unlimited forays to the rim. I'm not holding my breath on that front.

Bros and sisters, I'm not going to lie to you: this one feels like a loss. The Bulls are tough at home, and the United Center crowd is going to be drunkenly cacophonous. (I used to live in Chicago. On Friday nights there, you drink. When it's cold there, you drink. When it's a cold Friday night, you best believe you gon' drink.) As C.A. observed yesterday, the Lakers are riding "one of the least impressive three game winning streaks in basketball history." It seems a little like they're content biding their time until Drew returns, which isn't the approach you'd prefer to see heading into a tough road contest.

But if you feel like the Lakers can rise up and take this one, don't let me dissuade you. I'm wrong all the time. The Lakers have taken seven straight from the Bulls, and Vegas lists the champs as a one-and-a-half point favorite, for whatever those data points are worth. And the past couple years, the Lakers have had a knack for coming up with big road wins when we least expect it. Carlos Boozer, I'm sure, will be happy to confirm.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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