Keys to the Game: Bulls at Trail Blazers (01.09.19)

Tonight the Bulls embark on a five-game Western Conference road swing with the first stop at the Moda Center in Portland to take the Trail Blazers for the first time. Portland, who has won nine of their last 13, swept the season series last year, 2-0.

At the halfway point of the season the Blazers hit the hardwood this evening with a record of 24-17. It’s their best mark through 41 games since the 2014-15 when they started 30-11.

Over their last five games, the Blazers rank second in the league in defensive rating (100.0) and third in points allowed (103.2), going 4-1 with a net scoring mark of +11.1 points per game.

Big man Jusuf Nurkic has been on a great roll of late. The other night against New York the 7’0” pivot notched 20 points (7-of-9 shooting, 6-of-9 from the free throw line) in just 19 minutes, marking his fourth straight game of 20 or more. In his last seven, the 5th year center is producing 21.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks. So far he’s posted 20 double-doubles and is one of just six in the league to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and two assists to go along with one block per game.

However as good as Nurkic has been, when it comes to the Blazers the first thing opponents focus on is their stellar starting backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Both are listed at 6’3” and within five pounds of one another at 190 and 195, respectively. However, each has proven time and again to be giants capable of affecting a game in a number of ways.

For the year, McCollum is scoring 20.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while Lillard leads the team at 26.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists. McCollum has been one of the NBA’s biggest threats from behind the 3-point arc throughout the years, sporting a career connection percentage of 39.8%. However this year he’s been spotty at best, hitting just 32.9% from downtown. However, that certainly doesn’t mean he can be left alone, for he hasn’t shied away from looking for shots, launching 5.9 threes per. It would be wise for Chicago’s guards and wings to keep close tabs on McCollum hanging around the perimeter. The last the Bulls visited the Moda Center, McCollum torched them for a career-high 50 points, and set a franchise-record of scoring 28 in the first quarter.

Lillard also presents a number of difficulties. He started 2019 in great fashion last week against Sacramento by notching 25 points to reach 1,016 points scored in 38 games becoming the second-fastest Blazer to attain the 1,000 point mark since Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in 36 during the 1988-89 season. Where McCollum generally hurts opponents outside, Lillard does most of his best work attacking the hoop thanks to an explosive first step that often leaves defenders chasing the back of his jersey. So far he’s also hit at least eight free throws 17 times this season, which is tied for third-most in the league. When he gets to the line, he’s money in the bank at 89.5%, which is ninth-best in the league.

As the game goes along, Lillard also tends to become more lethal. Of the 122 three-pointers he’s made this season (6th in the NBA), 55 have come in the third quarter (1st in the NBA). He’s also second in the NBA in second-half scoring at 14.2 points per.

One more interesting tidbit to keep an eye on is the Blazers have gone 9-5 when both McCollum and Lillard score 20 or more points in the same game. Last year they went 23-10.

The Bulls (10-30) come into tonight with a new look to their rotation, thanks to the healthy return of Bobby Portis and the recent trade of wing Justin Holiday, opening an opportunity for rookie Chandler Hutchison, who started Chicago’s last game against Brooklyn on Sunday, posting eight points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.

Portis, in the meantime, came off the bench against the Nets and put up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 19 minutes. The 6’10” fourth-year player had missed the seven previous games with a badly sprained ankle.

Chicago, which has lost five of its last six and four in a row, needs to produce a gritty and aggressive effort in every way tonight. Portland’s formula for success this season has been a heavy dose of hardnosed, lockdown defense that in turn spawns a relentless offensive attack. In many ways, the Bulls hope to master that same blueprint down the road.

For the Bulls to succeed this evening they have to get and keep all five players on the floor involved at both ends. They can’t afford to allow their offensive attack to morph into a series one-on-one contests, nor can they afford to lose focus defensively by failing to execute proper rotations and fundamentals.

Chicago will also have to be smart with the ball, limiting turnovers that could very easily ignite Portland’s offense, in particular Lillard, by allowing the Blazers to jack up the pace with an endless series of fastbreaks.

As mentioned earlier, an important key will be to limit Portland’s opportunities from the 3-point arc, and in many respects its dominance on the glass. The Blazers are shooting respectable 35.4% from behind the arc, which ranks 13th in the league. Their primary threats from distance are McCollum and Lillard. So far they’ve gone 18-6 whenever the team makes 10 or more 3s.

When it comes to rebounding, the Blazers are third-best in the NBA with a mark of 48.5. They’ve gone 22-10 whenever they collect an equal number or outrebound an opponent.