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Game Thread #25: Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers

I think the Daily Herald said it best in today's headline: "Winning's nice, but can Bulls beat a good team?"

The wins are stacking up and the Bulls are considered a force again (click that link and look for the shout-out!). But as I told Kurt at ForumBlueandGold (one of the best blogs in the NBA sub-sphere), I've never been so unenthused over 11 wins out of 12 games before. I will say that I (and likely everyone here) would've been pretty depressed over losing any games in this stretch, the schedule was that soft and the Bulls should be beating bad teams.

Not that the Lakers are bad by any means, but this game is also winnable. The Lakers have a good record and point differential, but have only had a total of 7 road games all season before tonight. And they are now missing their second-best player, Lamar Odom. Here's Kurt's take on how that affects their team (and more):

The Lakers really miss Odom. Yes, his scoring is part of that, but what they've missed more was his defensive versatility and his rebounding. Vladamir Radmanovic found his shot last game and his figuring out the spaces where he is comfortable in the triangle offense, but he is a massive defensive drop off from Odom. The Laker defense since Odom went down has been off. Another thing missed is Odom used to grab defensive rebounds and then push the ball and run the break himself, ala Magic Johnson. Now, the Lakers are missing that pace, that presence, and that second offensive option when other teams go with "The Kobe Rules." Nobody else is stepping up, at least consistently, Kobe is shouldering the load.

VladRad has been starting games, but your boy [Former Illini! -Matt] Cook has been finishing them. In the last three games Cook has been on the plus side of the plus/minus numbers and Vlad on the minus side each time. Cook hit the key three to send the game to overtime against Washington. You may get to see a fair amount of him tonight.

The Lakers tend to struggle against quick guards that can get in the lane (see Arenas, Gilbert: 60 points). Been that way for a couple of years because Smush is long and creates steals but does not stay in front of guys well (Jordan Farmar is better but makes rookie errors, although he and Smush are about even in minutes now most nights). The difference really is how into the game the centers are. Last game against the Bulls Andrew Bynum was up and focused to take on Ben Wallace, he had some early blocks and established presence inside. Kwame Brown did the same thing off the bench. But the last few games that has not been the case, they have been slow to rotate if at all. I have no idea which version of Bynum is going to show up night to night, neither does Phil. That's why Kwame starts, he's not as dynamic but he's far more consistent.

So look for Deng and Nocioni to have good games in Odom's absence, as well as the rejuvenated (or feasting on the East?) Ben Wallace to be more of a factor.

But despite a deficiency at the point, the Lakers still have Kobe Bryant, who is a matchup nightmare for Kirk Hinrich (and most he is the best player in the NBA). Am I the only one who'd rather just sacrifice Duhon's fouls and have him guard Kobe in the opening minutes? Last game Kirk got into foul trouble quick and was a complete dud for the rest of the game.

Whether it's against beatable teams or not, the Bulls are improving and winning. There are few statement games in December anyway, although I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to 12/30 against Cleveland. But this Lakers squad is a step up in class from the dregs of the Eastern Conference, and will be a good test to see if the Bulls can maintain their winning ways.

This is an open game thread, so it is your time to reminisce over the '00-'01 Illini squad that was a #1 seed and fell one game short of the Final 4...