[Thanks to Easy Eis for today's game preview -yfbb]
Take a deep breath, close your eyes, cross your fingers, and hope that lightning doesn't strike twice. Today's contest between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers marks the first time that Derrick Rose has returned to the Moda Center (formerly known as the Rose Garden, or Rose Graveyard/Ground Ze-rose depending on your perspective) since his second major knee injury in 2013. Rose is coming off an ankle sprain he suffered towards the end of last week's win against the Pacers, so all we can do is hope that today he begins to build some positive momentum with his health and play. Unfortunately, Portland hasn't been a place the Bulls have had much success in as of late, and today's contest is very much a trap game disguised as a match up against one of the few lowly opponents in the West.
Before you throw the Blazers under the bus for their 6-9 record that includes a seven game losing streak prior to last weekend, it's important to consider a couple factors. The first is that they lost a franchise player in LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency over the season (on top of three other starters), leaving a gaping hole at the four spot that the team has unsuccessfully tried to fill with the gruesome twosome of Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu. Any team that loses their best player with next to no reciprocation can certainly be forgiven for experiencing early season growing pains. The second thing to consider is that Meyers Leonard, a player that quietly had one of the most efficient shooting seasons in the league last year, has been out for much of the beginning of this season with a shoulder injury. Leonard, an Illinois native and just 23 years old, injured his shoulder during the Blazers' game against the San Antonio Spurs, which game during the third game of the team's seven game losing streak. Leonard started all nine games prior to the injury, and although he struggled as he transitioned to a starting role, his status as the most credible perimeter threat at the 5 spot in the NBA certainly affects the floor spacing of Portland's offense when he is absent.
Even without Leonard to open things up a bit, Portland still scorches the nets with a top ten offensive efficiency rating of 102.8 points per hundred possessions. What's more impressive is that they do so despite boasting a pace of only 97.8 possessions per game, good for 21st in the NBA. Much of their scoring is fueled by their dynamic duo backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, both of whom are having career seasons averaging a combined 45.6 ppg and 5 makes from 3 per game on 37% shooting from beyond the arc. Because of this, the final score of this game will be heavily determined by the defensive performances of both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, and while the latter has been nothing short of phenomenal as of late, relying on the former to give a stellar defensive performance against one of the better scorers in the league while coming off an injury is a lot to ask. That's not to say Rose isn't capable of such spectacular defensive efforts, but if he struggles to keep up for whatever reason, I'd expect to see a healthy dose of Kirk Hinrich given his gritty outings the last couple of games.
But here's where it can get really tricky for the Bulls. While their defensive efficiency rating that ranks 6th in the league (97.7 pphp) would indicate that they can keep a productive Blazers offense at bay, other metric stats begin to reveal where things could get out of hand quickly. An offensive efficiency rating that ranks 23rd overall (98.9 pphp) combined with a top ten pace of 99.9 possessions per game indicates a team that scores in bunches rather than with consistent efficiency. If the Bulls get into a chucking match as they have in previous losses this season, then the Blazers will run them out of the building with their superior shooting and rebounding. Given the Bulls' continued tendency to coast against perceived weaker teams, this is all too real of a possibility.
Fortunately, it seems as though the Bulls have made an effort in practice to play better in halfcourt sets with Pau Gasol at the elbow, and that could go a long way in terms of keeping pace low this game and while also improving their shot selection and efficiency. "The big thing is if you cut and move and screen and do the unselfish things, that stuff takes care of itself," Fred Hoiberg said at practice. "With Pau, you give him the ball at the elbow and he can make plays. He's a very good passer. But we can't stand. That's where we need to get better." Given that Gasol will likely have a matchup advantage against whomever the Blazers choose to run with at the center spot in Leonard's absence, it would be more than in the Bulls' best interest to play a slower offensive game fueled by the playmaking ability of their frontcourt. If they can do this while also getting good defensive performances out of their backcourt, then victory is almost certain.
Now, given how the Bulls have played thus far this season, this is a lot to ask. Still, the Bulls are coming off another full weekend of rest and had a good tune-up practice yesterday in the midst of the circus road trip. If they come out focused and prepared for a team that is more challenging than their record indicates, then they have a very good chance to walk out of Portland with a win. However, if they believe they can coast against a bottom division team, then this will be yet another example of the Bulls falling short of winning against a team they are more than capable of beating. Either way, as long as Rose walks unassisted out of the arena tonight with all limbs still attached, it will be the most satisfying Bulls performance in Portland in quite some time.
Tip is at 10:00 PM ET. And Mike Dunleavy is still out. So is Aaron Brooks, likely until the last game in November against the Spurs.