Tonight the Chicago Bulls (21-54) and the Portland Trail Blazers (46-27) come together at to the United Center to complete their annual two-game season series. The Trail Blazers won the first contest in Portland, 124-112. Portland shot a blistering 56.6% from the field and 42.3% from the three-point line that night. CJ McCollum led them with 24 points (10-14 FG, 2-4 3-PT, 2-2 FT) to go with three rebounds and four assists while rookie Wendell Carter Jr. led Chicago with 22 points and six rebounds.
Portland has now won 12 of the last 15 over the Bulls, and tonight presents the opportunity for them to sweep the season series for the fourth time in the last seven years.
The Trail Blazers, who have already locked up a playoff berth, will take the floor without their talented starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, who was lost on Monday after suffering compound fractures to both his left tibia and fibula while attempting to tip-in a missed shot during a double-overtime victory against the Brooklyn Nets.
The 24-year old 7-foot pivot was enjoying a breakout season, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds. His injury occurred during the second overtime after putting up 32 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in what turned out to be Portland's playoff clincher. The recent addition of veteran big man Enes Kanter (10.4 points, 7.1 rebounds. 54.1% FG in 14 games with the Blazers) will help definitely fill some of the void left in the middle with Nurkic season-ending injury.
As for tonight's contest, the Trail Blazers come in having won seven of their last eight, including four in a row. At the moment they're essentially tied with Houston for the No. 3 seed in the West with nine games (including tonight) left to play.
Besides Nurkic's absence, Portland is also going to have to get by without high-powered guard CJ McCollum, who has been out of action with a left knee strain suffered on March 16. The 6'3 sniper out of Lehigh, who is averaging 21.3 points, 2.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds, and is the Blazers' second-leading scorer behind point guard Damian Lillard (26.4 points, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds), didn't travel with the team, but is expected back in time for the start of the playoffs in a couple of weeks.
Portland's troubles are small potatoes compared to what the Bulls have had to endure. Just a couple of days into training camp Denzel Valentine was declared out for the year after having to undergo reconstructive ankle surgery. Lauri Markkanen was then lost for six weeks thanks to a serious elbow injury a couple of days later. Promising rookie center Wendell Carter Jr.'s freshman year ended early in mid-January due to thumb surgery, followed by fellow rookie forward Chandler Hutchison's season-ending foot injury a week later. The team's leading scorer, Zach LaVine (23.7 points, 4.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds) has also been sidelined the last couple of games due to a flare up of right patellar tendonitis, as well as point guard Kris Dunn (back strain) and small forward Otto Porter Jr. (right shoulder strain). Add to that the fact that Markkanen became ill during the first half of last night's loss in Toronto and wasn't able to return, and isn't expected to play again tonight, it's safe to assume the Bulls have a fairly steep hill to climb if they're going to pull off an upset win.
All-in-all, Chicago is always at its best when they play a fast-paced, selfless game, and are able to control of the boards. When the ball freely skips from player-to-player and from side-to-side, with everyone involved in the action, they can be tough to beat. This evening the Bulls will need to force Portland's defense onto its collective heels by persistently attacking the basket at every opportunity.
The Bulls must also sport a gritty attitude and get physical, especially when it comes to rebounding and getting into transition. Offensively and defensively Chicago needs to establish a quick, steady flow. Even with a number of their key players sidelined, the bench is still loaded with plenty of speed and athleticism. This underdog crew will need to find a way to score easy buckets before the Trail Blazers have time to set up their defense.
From the moment they walk into the United Center until the final buzzer blares at the end of the night the Bulls need to outhustle and outwork the Trail Blazers in every way possible.