[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview. Reminder it's an unusually early (6pm) start due to the ESPN telecast. Hey, that means no Neil&Stacey either! -yfbb]
So, in addition to JoNo and Dougie McBuckets being ruled out in surprisingly un-Thibs-like fashion, which is to say, a full day in advance of the game, it looks like two other Bulls are questionable for tip-off tonight after being held out of practice yesterday. Pau Gasol apparently took a hard elbow to the chest from Brooklyn's Sergay Karasev (who got the starting nod ahead of Mirza Teletovic in the Bulls' awesome drubbing of the Nets) and also has some kind of shoulder issue, and Tony Snell missed practice for "personal" reasons. Now, I'm just rampantly speculating here, but I would posit that those personal reasons could have something to do with Tom Thibodeau hating Tony Snell. Because Jimmy Butler is the league leader in minutes, and because McDermott has a "very minor" knee injury that was apparently not minor enough to warrant a new MRI (according to Nick Friedell's ESPN article), I hope that the Snell-Thibs hate can subside by 6 p.m. tonight. Noah's still-mysterious, still lingering summer knee injury is obviously of greatest concern at present, though there's not much we can do but wait and hope for now. I'm glad that Chicago is finally being sort of cautious with him, given that he also has a sprained ankle. And I'm very, very happy that Derrick Rose is only playing 26.7 minutes a game, but Pau and Jimmy's insane minutes hauls lately have me somewhat concerned for the future, given the Bulls' dubious medical staff.
A (ahem) Silver lining (see what I did there?): it looks like, though the NBA is reticent to surrender regular-season games and regular-season revenues in the interest of player health, it IS strongly considering tacking on an additional 10 days to the season and a significantly reduced preseason. This wouldn't be implemented until probably 2016 at the earliest, for some reason, but still -- if the Thibs/Rose/Butler/Noah/Taj/Nikola core is still kicking at that point (and keep in mind, Butler is an RFA this summer and Noah is unrestricted in 2016), the added rest could be a big help for our Bulls. A Gold (and Crimson) lining: Brian Windhorst, a beat reporter who may have seen more LeBron James games up close than any other, has speculated that his slow start to the season may actually be indicative of a legitimate regression. As a basketball fan, this would objectively suck, because it's no fun to watch the greats slow down. BUT, as a Bulls fan with one of our own near-greats getting prematurely hobbled again and again and again, it stands as a reminder that the East is wide open (especially considering that LeBron sat yesterday with knee issues and has had back problems already this season). And we're right in the thick of it. The thing about the Bulls is, we really do have the potentially to do something special this year. Though the early returns have been a bit choppy so far, the team is playing well enough to warrant anywhere from 2-4 All Stars, depending on what happens with the oft-injured Rose and Noah.
Anyway, on to the game: the Portland Trailblazers (17-5), coming off an uncharacteristic loss to Andrew Wiggins' young Timberwolves, are just one among many Western Conference stalwarts riding a wave of starting line-up continuity to a spectacular early season record, and they look to continue their winning ways against Chicago (13-8) tonight. BUT -- and, as you can see above, I am something of a Bulls pessimist -- I don't think they're going to. Why, you ask? Because the Bulls' best interior defender this season is not the knee-hampered Joakim Noah, nor the slow-footed-but-still-awesome Pau Gasol ("20 and 12!"). It is Taj Gibson, and he is finally back with a vengeance, following an ankle he re-sprained against this very team a month ago. He is going to demoralize LaMarcus Aldridge in a bit of a retributive move, forcing him away from his favorite mid-range shots as much as possible and trying to make the other, non-Aldridge Blazers beat these Bulls. The sharpshooting back court tandem of Wesley Matthews (38.4% from 3-point land, 48.9% overall from the floor, 61.5% true shooting percentage) and Damian Lillard (37.2% from 3-point land, 44.8% overall from the floor, 58.8% true shooting percentage) will certainly try, but suddenly they have a pretty healthy starting Bulls back court of Rose and Butler to deal with. Rose's offense has been hit-or-miss this season, but when motivated against the top point guards in the league, he always seems to get up on defense now. And damn did he look good in limited minutes on Wednesday. TAKE A GANDER AT HIS HIGHLIGHTS. Just this past week, he hounded Steph Curry and Deron Williams into poor shooting nights (though Butler helped on Williams some). Butler has just been spectacular on both ends, leading the Bulls in scoring while making the miserable souls he's defending work their tails off for every bucket.
Outside of their stellar starting five (Aldridge, Lillard, Wesley Matthews, jack-of-all-trades small forward Nicolas Batum, and the Lopez Brother Who Doesn't Have Terrible Feet), the Blazers are still somewhat thin, though big free agency adds Chris Kaman and Steve Blake have been outperforming expectations off the bench. The Bulls' depth, Gibson's stellar return and a game plan (force the ball away from Aldridge) that has been shown to work for teams with inferior talent against Portland will combine for at least a close game, but I am projecting a win here. The Bulls are only 3-5 at home (but an awesome 10-3 on the road), and as they host Portland tonight, you've got to think they'll be looking to rectify that. This is certainly no gimme, but the Bulls are fully capable of sealing the W tonight after a fairly light work week.
Also, for your viewing pleasure, in keeping with today's Bulls-Blazers theme, here is a reminder of what happens when you say you're just as good a player as Michael Jordan.
Tip at 6 PM CST/7 EST on ESPN/Comcast Sports Net/ESPN-AM 1000.