The Bulls return to the home hardwood this evening after four days of practice to take on the visiting Portland Trail Blazers for the second and final time this season. In the first clash earlier this month in Portland, Chicago rallied behind Coby White's 21 points and 10 rebounds to erase a 20-point second half deficit to stun the Blazers, 111-108. Both sides enter tonight's contest having lost two-in-a-row and eager to turn things around with a much-needed victory.
Chicago comes in on the heels of a 119-103 home loss against Boston last Monday night. Bulls guard Zach LaVine lit it up from the floor with a game-high 30 points and grabbed six boards, while teammates Lauri Markkanen added 18 points and six caroms of his own, and veteran Thaddeus Young came off the bench to contribute 16 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
LaVine is having a terrific season, averaging 27 points, 5.3 assists, and 5.2 rebounds off an impressive 50% shooting from the field.
Portland is also coming off a disappointing 104-101 road loss to Houston the other night. The Blazers got off to a great start and led by as many as 20 in the first quarter, but much like the Bulls did to them earlier this season, the Rockets slowly but steadily chipped away to make the game a fight to the finish. Portland relied heavily on their three-point shooting, sinking 17 of 41 (41.5%) from downtown, but in the end failed to close the book during the final moments of the game.
Future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony, who the game before had notched a season-high 22 points, had an off night, ending with only six points in 38 minutes. But Damian Lillard was on fire, finishing with 30 points and nine assists, backed up by forward Gary Trent Jr., who hit a career-high seven 3-pointers on his way to a 23-point night. Blazers backup center, Enes Kanter, who seems to always have a good game against Chicago, also clocked in with a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds, while second-year guard Anfernee Simmons added 14 points and eight rebounds.
The Blazers have been hit with a series of injuries to several key players recently, including All-Star guard CJ McCollum (broken left foot), starting center Jusef Nurkić (fractured right wrist), starting forward Robert Covington (concussion) and reserve big man Zach Collins (left ankle stress fracture), each of whom will not play tonight. Forward Derrick Jones Jr. also ended up hobbled at the end of the Houston game the other night, and his availability as of this writing is up in the air. Needless to say, if Portland is to find its way back onto a winning track, they're going to need to figure things out quickly.
But one player the Blazers don't need to worry about is Lillard, who has scored 56 points with 19 assists and gathered 10 boards over his past two games. For the season, Lillard is averaging 28.8 points, 7.1 assists, and 4.8 rebounds on 44.9% shooting from the field and 37.9% shooting from beyond the arc.
As for the Bulls, they've been an offensive juggernaut this season, but they have failed to convert their scoring prowess into wins. The team is averaging 115.3 points on 47.4% shooting, but they've allowed opponents to score 118.2 points on 48% shooting. The Bulls are hitting an impressive 38.3% from beyond the arc and 79.1% from the free throw line, while grabbing 44.5 rebounds per game.
However as notable as those numbers above look, Chicago is at the very bottom when it comes to turnovers, committing an NBA worst 18.1 per game. If the Bulls really intend to be a playoff contender this season, then that high rate of bungling simply can't continue.
In order for Chicago to succeed they must generously share the ball by skipping it from player-to-player, keeping everyone engaged and force opponents to burn extra energy on defense. Smart and decisive passing will help to open driving lanes to the basket and generate uncontested shots around the 3-point arc.
The Bulls need to play fast, but they can't continue to come up empty on a lot of possessions because of careless turnovers. They also can't allow the offense to stagnate by standing around and watching a teammate attempt to go one-on-five. Constant player and ball movement, in and out of the paint, will get the team into a free-flowing rhythm.
A primary key going forward will be for the Bulls to improve their communication skills and their ability to trust each other at both ends of the floor. Each and every game, Chicago must deliver a hardnosed effort on the boards, and in the paint. They must not allow opponents to feel comfortable in any way.
If the Bulls can keep turnovers under control, and out hustle and out work Portland not only on the glass, but relentlessly battle for every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves an edge to be the last team standing at the end of the night.