Records: Lakers 16-6 (3rd in the West), Bulls 12-8 (4th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.5 (1st in NBA), Bulls 104.8 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (11th in NBA), Bulls 103.6 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Bulls: Derrick Rose, Keith Bogans, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Injuries:Lakers: Andrew Bynum, Theo Ratliff (out), Derrick Caracter (day-to-day)
The Lakers Coming in: Both the Lakers have and Bulls come into tonight’s matchup riding three-game winning streaks, following a down stretch for both squads. More troubling for Chicago where tonight’s game is concerned is their seven game losing streak to L.A., dating back to over four years ago. The Lakers, meanwhile, come into the United Center on a high note after Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beater preserved a grind-it-out victory against the Clippers on Wednesday night. With five more tough road games looming after tonight’s affair, the hope is that the Lakers can ride the momentum from Fisher’s latest heroics to a successful trip.
Ron Artest continues to under perform for L.A., scoring a combined 16 points during the Lakers’ winning streak. Matt Barnes hasn’t exactly been heating it up from outside lately either, though, missing his last 12 three-point attempts. Jackson actually utilized Barnes in favor of Artest when the Lakers last played Chicago, particularly down the stretch of what was a closely-contested game.
The Bulls Coming in: Chicago has been infused by the return of marquee free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer, who in five games is averaging 15 points to go along with six boards in 26 minutes of playing time. The longtime Jazz forward has been inconsistent so far, following up his masterful 29 point, 12 rebound performance against the Thunder earlier this week with only four points against Cleveland in the Bulls’ most recent win. While Chicago certainly needs Carlos if they want to make any kind of serious run at the Eastern Conference crown, they were more than able to steady the ship with him out. Once he works his way back into playing shape and fully integrates himself with his new team, the Bulls figure to be as dangerous as just about any team that side of the Mississippi.
The last time these two teams met just a little over two weeks ago, the Lakers gutted out a 98-91 victory thanks to some timely shooting down the stretch of the fourth quarter and a difference-making performance from the Killer B’s. Derrick Rose was an absolute menace for Chicago, seemingly scoring at will against the Lakers’ Bynum-less defense on his way to a huge night (30 points, eight assists). Joakim Noah also outhustled Bynum and Gasol throughout the night, securing a game high 13 boards in addition to scoring 19 points of his own.
Keys to game: It’s too bad the Lakers won’t have Bynum back in the lineup for a few more games because they could really use him against a team like the Bulls whose personnel allows them to penetrate deep into the lane and often out-muscle teams down low despite having an undersized front line. We wrote about it prior to the Lakers’ last meeting with the Bulls and the same is true in tonight’s game — stop Derrick Rose’s patented drives to the hoop and you likely stop the Bulls too.
Gasol and Odom in particular will need to step up on defense, both against Rose and Chicago’s new-and-improved front line. Boozer isn’t known as an especially strong rebounder, but Noah is a beast down low and was repeatedly able to beat Gasol to the glass the last time the Lakers and Bulls met. The Bulls also got a surprising performance (16 points, 12 rebounds) out of Taj Gibson in that game too. Now relegated to a bench role with Boozer’s return, Gibson still figures to be a wild card down low for Chicago. Odom actually had one of his better games of the season last time against Chicago, scoring 21 points to go along with eight boards. L.A. needed every bit of it too as Pau was completely ineffective that night, only putting up 12 points on a lousy 3-10 from the field. A similar effort against a healthy Chicago squad simply won’t cut it tonight.
The Lakers bench outscored Chicago’s by a whopping 29 points (39 to 10) in November, with Shannon Brown leading the way with 21 points to tie Odom for the team lead in that game. Despite the bench scoring gap, the Bulls’ core bench trio — Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver — are more than capable of influencing a game for Chicago. Add Gibson to that mix and you have the makings of a very potent bench.
Other than Chicago, the teams the Lakers play on this trip — New Jersey, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Toronto — are all more than winnable. L.A. admittedly lost focus a bit during their recent four-game slide (not that that they have looked particularly impressive during their last three wins either…) and their place atop the standings, but there’s no better cure for such ails than dominating a road trip. The Lakers are already accustomed to their annual extended Grammys trip in February, but this quarter season trek could provide a perfect tune-up. It all starts with a win against the Bulls tonight, though.
One last note to look for tonight…according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kobe (26,375 points) only needs 20 points to match John Havlicek’s career total (26,395). Havlicek ranks 11th among the NBA’s all-time leaders scorers, but he’s the only player who spent his entire NBA career with one team to score more points than Bryant. Kobe only scored 20 against Chicago the last time around on a measly 8-18 shooting from the floor, but my money is on #24 passing Havlicek tonight.
Where you can watch: 5 p.m. PST start time on KCAL and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 a.m.