Records: Lakers 32-31 (9th in the West), Bulls 35-27 (5th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.8 (8th in the NBA), Bulls 99.8 (24th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (18th in the NBA), Bulls 98.8 (4th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Bulls: Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Bulls: Derrick Rose (out), Taj Gibson (doubtful), Rip Hamilton (questionable), Kirk Hinrich (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have finally moved above the .500 mark. And while they’re tied with the Jazz from a record standpoint, they remain in the 9th spot due to tie breakers (the Jazz have already won the season series). That said, the Lakers continue to gain ground on the teams in front of them as the Warriors and Jazz are struggling some (especially the Jazz) and the Rockets are still adjusting to the trade that sent away two key players from their power forward rotation.
That said, it’s best to repeat this again: even though the scoreboard watching will continue in earnest, the Lakers must still be concerned with what they can control — their own play. In the last two games the Lakers have found themselves down big to lottery bound teams and needing huge performances from Kobe (and Dwight and Nash) to make improbable comebacks to win games. These wins have made for exciting viewing but isn’t a formula for long term success. The Lakers must find ways to play better earlier in the games and bring a consistency to their performance if they hope to not just make the playoffs but to be dangerous once there.
Because even though this team is clearly developing a belief in itself and individual players are showing what they’re capable of — especially Dwight who is improving every game — they must find ways to be less reliant on the brilliance of these guys and instead find success from more of a team standpoint. Of course there will be nights where the Lakers need their stars to carry them, but that can’t be an every game theme. This group must find a way to start defending better as a group while also developing a workable attack on offense that isn’t so reliant on Kobe going nova.
The Bulls Coming in: While the big question surrounding the Bulls is when (if?) Derrick Rose will be back this season, they continue to play well enough to win games. They’re 3-2 in their last 5 games and just came off a nail biter against the Jazz where a last second three pointer by Marco Belinelli won the game.
This team continues to be a defensive monster, boasting the 4th most efficient defense in the league with Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler representing strong wing and interior defensive options for defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau to deploy. So, even though they also have average to below average defenders in their lineup (Boozer, Belinelli, Nate Robinson), the combination of scheme and defensive anchors in the aforementioned players means this team continues to get it done on that end of the floor.
Where the Bulls are struggling, however, is on offense. Without Rose to create good looks, the Bulls have become more reliant on players who should be complimentary talents rather than number one options. And while Boozer and Deng can be go to players on any given possession, they’re being asked to carry a tremendous load on O and sometimes they’re simply not good enough to do so.
So the Bulls end up grinding out a lot of games and while that’s a strategy that’s worked this season, they are essentially performing at their ceiling as currently constructed and with Rose not yet ready to rejoin the lineup. Their disciplined and gritty style keeps them in nearly every game and their best players ability to play heavy minutes mean that they get favorable match ups against team’s second units, but the fact is that that they’re not likely to go far in the playoffs playing this way. Regardless of how hard they fight — and they do fight hard.
Keys to game: The Bulls are a bit banged up right now and a lot of how this game goes will depend on who is available to them tomorrow. If none of the injured Bulls suit up, they’re likely to only play 8 players and that will test their stamina in the first game of their road trip after a tough contest on Friday. Not to mention that at least one player who may not go — Kirk Hinrich — had a fantastic game the last time these two teams met and was a big reason the Bulls won that contest.
Disregarding the injuries, though, this game will simply be a battle of strength on strength to see whose top unit can come out on top. The Lakers boast one of the better offensive attacks in the league while the Bulls have a top tier defense. Whichever team can best play to their strengths while getting enough on the other side of the ball will likely win this game.
For the Lakers, they’re going to have to find ways to score against a defense that is specifically designed to slow down the types of actions they run. The Bulls love to flood the strong side box with an extra defender and that type of scheme will cause problems for an iso heavy attack like the Lakers have run for Kobe in recent weeks. Beyond dealing with the 2nd defender, Kobe will also have to deal with Deng and Jimmy Butler as a primary defender and both offer length and lateral quickness to slow him down all over the floor. Kobe’s been brilliant lately, but he’s going to have to do it against some very good defense in this game.
Beyond the Bulls ability to slow a perimeter threat like Kobe, they also have Joakim Noah operating in the middle of their D and creating havoc when defending the pick and roll. Noah is one of (if not) the best hedge and recover big men in the game and his ability to slow down the ball handler and still get back to the paint to bother a rolling big man and/or rebound is key to the Bulls’ scheme. Nash and Howard will have a difficult time cracking his presence in this game, but to do so they’ll need to be precise and make quick, smart decisions with how they move and pass within this action. Nash’s ability to make the right pass/shot read will be one of the more important factors in this game, especially with Kobe having to deal with the level of defender he’s going to face.
Defensively the Lakers aren’t facing the strongest offense but this team does have some weapons to account for. Look for Robinson to really attack Nash in isolation and out of the P&R to try and get into the lane where he can get off good shots for himself or hit a teammate for an open shot. Robinson is no Rose, but he offers a similar skill set in that he’s quick and explosive with his movements and is not bashful when trying to create off the dribble. The Lakers’ help must be ready to deal with Robinson trying to get into the paint and when Howard steps up to try and contain him, the back side rotations must be sharp to make sure that Booze and Noah don’t feast at the rim with easy baskets.
Deng and Boozer must also be respected when attacking in isolation and their defenders must be ready for their pet moves. Boozer loves to work from the elbow area and from the left block where he’ll use his face up and turnaround jumper to get baskets. His man must be ready to contest his shot and would do well to make Boozer put the ball on the ground or become a passer rather just a rhythm scorer off that jumper. As for Deng, he too will attack with his jumper but also has a nice off the dribble game that must be respected. As mentioned earlier he’s taking on a bigger load on offense and with that responsibility is more wiling to attack to score or to get to the foul line. He has range out to the three point line, but his man would be wise to make him prove he can hit that shot before running at him hard and giving up a driving lane that can expose the Lakers’ help schemes.
The Bulls aren’t the Raptors or the Hornets. They’re a team that will continue to grind away and will not get too up or down nor tighten up if the Lakers make a big push at any point in this game. My point is that the Lakers can’t simply make one good push in this game and expect it to be enough to win. The Bulls will be aggressive on both ends and will make the Lakers work on every single possession for the full contest. If the Lakers aren’t ready for that type of fight, they will feel the repercussions and not be happy when the final buzzer sounds.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.