Chicago Bulls (13-23) vs. Portland Trailblazers (18-17)
7 p.m., WGN
Portland star point guard Damian Lillard is a game time decision with a hamstring issue.
Tell a junkie before the season that the Bulls would ring in the New Year having won 10 of their last 13 games and would only have the ninth-worst record in the NBA, and he’d immediately demand some of whatever you were smoking.
But that’s where we are. A team threatening mediocrity which would deny them a top draft pick in a loaded NBA draft.
It was a lot more inspiring when Joakim Noah refused to let the Bulls tank in 2014 than when Nikola Mirotic did the same thing in 2017. But here we are, and the Bulls have at least backed up the no tanking talk with inspiring effort unlike the Chicago Bulls zombies of the last two seasons that consistently just went through the motions.
A surging Bulls team (the latest Bleacher Report power rankings has the Bulls at No. 18), will look to defend home turf tonight against a Portland team that has flirted with the .500 mark all season, but remains in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race (seventh right now).
For the second night in a row, the Chicago Bulls could face one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt duos pending the health of Lillard. Yesterday afternoon, the excursion with the Washington Wizards John Wall and Bradley Beal didn’t end well for the Bulls. Wall put up his customary 21 points (but on an inefficient 6-for-20 from the field which is credit to Kris Dunn). But, it was Beal and his 39 points (16-for-29 from the field) that made the real impact as Justin Holiday couldn’t navigate the army of screeners creating open looks for Beal nor could any of the Bulls big men stay in front of him on switches.
Tonight enter Lillard and C.J. McCollum, a backcourt with a reasonable claim for best in the NBA. The two combine for 46.2 points per game, which is 45.4 percent of the Trail Blazers average points per game this season (their 101.7 points per game is second fewest in the NBA).
Seven-footer Jusuf Nurkic (who the Bulls infamously drafted in 2014 only to trade to Denver along with Anthony Randolph, Gary Harris, and a future second-round pick for Doug McDermott) does most of his damage near the rim (14.5 points per game). But he can still stretch the floor a bit (about 27 percent of his shot attempts come from past ten feet to the 3-point line) and the Bulls have well documented issues with stretch big men that they will need to shore up if they want to win tonight.
The Trail Blazers also boast one of the NBA’s top defenses (fourth in defensive rating), but facing tough defenses has become par for the course for a Bulls team that has squared off against five teams in the top ten in the NBA in defensive rating since Dec. 11.
With Niko-trading season fast approaching, these coming weeks could be the last opportunity for the Bulls to continue piling up wins before a roster demolition could relegate them to the NBA’s cellar once again.
Or the Bulls will keep everybody, and ride to wherever the current roster takes them.