Keys to the Game: Bulls at Trail Blazers (01.05.21)

The Bulls tip-off a four game Western Conference road swing this evening in Portland against the Trail Blazers. They'll be back in action tomorrow night against Sacramento, and then spend the weekend in Los Angeles taking on the Lakers Friday night, and the Clippers Sunday afternoon, before returning home to face Boston at the United Center a week from tonight.

As for this evening's contest, fans can catch all the action on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670) beginning at 9:30 PM.

The Bulls have quickly sped up their early-season slow start. After dropping their first three games, Chicago has now won three of its last four, and can get to .500 by upsetting Portland tonight.

The Bulls are coming off an exciting 118-108 victory over the Dallas Mavericks Sunday at the United Center. Dallas was without its All-Star, Luka Dončić, who was a last-minute scratch with a quad issue, but Chicago was also shorthanded, playing without the help of starting forward Lauri Markkanen and top reserves Tomas Satoransky, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison. Those four players will miss tonight's game as well, as they were left home due to the NBA's health and safety protocols.

Against the Mavericks the other night, Zach LaVine poured in a season-high 39 points to lead Chicago to victory. So far this season, LaVine leads the team in scoring at 24.6 points per game and ranks 16th in the league overall.

The Bulls come into tonight's contest as a top-ten scoring team at 114.3 per game. They're getting a lot of their points at the free throw line, as they rank third in the NBA with nearly 22 made charity tosses. Lavine leads the charge with a team-high 5.4 foul shots on a sparkling .884% shooting.

As good as Chicago has been offensively, they have a lot of work to do on defense. The Bulls currently sit dead last in the league by giving up 121.3 points per game. The defense also reflects on their offense from the free throw line, in that Chicago is giving up the third-most free throws in the NBA. They're also allowing opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field, which is tied for sixth-worst in the league.

So clearly a major aspect this evening if the Bulls are to come out on top is that they need to continue improving upon communicating and trusting one another at both ends of the floor. Offensively, Chicago must freely share the ball, but in doing so, they must keep turnovers in check. The Bulls come in as the NBA's second worst in turnovers at 18.4 per game, whereas Portland is the best, committing only 11.8.

In order for Chicago's offense to kick into gear, the ball must freely hop from player-to-player and from side-to-side in order to force opponents to burn extra energy on defense. Quick decisions and swift passes also help to open driving lanes to the basket and generate uncontested looks at the rim from the perimeter. The Bulls can't afford to slip into the bad habit of standing around and watching a teammate attempt to take on the Trail Blazers defense all by himself. There must be constant ball and player movement – in and out of the paint – to create a free-flowing offensive rhythm.

Like Chicago, the Trail Blazers can score. Portland averages 115.5 points, landing them 8th in the league, just a couple of slots ahead of the Bulls, who are 10th. They also mirror the Bulls from the free throw line, averaging just two fewer free throws to rank sixth, putting up 20 per game. Portland's most significant offensive difference from Chicago is from behind the 3-point arc. The Blazers score almost nine more points a game from long distance than the Bulls, and are second in the league, hitting 15.5 triples per night.

Thus, Chicago has to focus a lot of its defensive attention on the 3-point arc this evening, as Portland's dynamic backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard are shooting a combined 51-127 (.400) on shots 24+ feet away from the rim.

The Trail Blazers were aggressive in the off-season, acquiring forwards Robert Covington from Houston, and signing free agent Derrick Jones, who in the past has been an effective defensive stopper. They also brought back sure-to-be Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony via free agency.

Anthony, a 10-time All-Star and six-time All-NBA honoree, is now in his 18th season. These days he usually comes off the bench to spark Portland's second unit. He flat out dominated the Bulls last season, averaging 24 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3 assists over two games. In fact, Anthony has scored 20 or more points in 10 of his last 12 outings against Chicago.

Thus, in order for Chicago to start this four-game road trip on the right note, they're going to need to produce a gritty, hardnosed effort from tip-off to the final horn, and especially so on the boards, as well as down in the paint, and get some punch off the bench.

The Bulls are looking to end a seven-game losing streak to Portland, as the Trail Blazers have swept the series in each of the last three years.

If Chicago can keep turnovers under control, and outwork the Trail Blazers down in the paint and on the boards, and go hard after every loose ball and long rebound, and consistently run shooters off the 3-point arc, forcing Portland to rush and take mostly contested shots, they should give themselves a chance of being the last team standing at the end of the night.