After beating the Raptors in a come from behind effort that highlighted the team’s willingness to battle even when down, the Lakers continue their road trip with an evening game in the City of Wind. The Lakers are now 2-1 since departing LA for their 7 game adventure and look to be coming together at a time right when they looked most like they were falling apart.
Maybe the Nick Young suspension and subsequent locker room rumblings about the team not playing for or having each other’s backs has something to do with it. Maybe it is just the product of some hot shooting from the outside while Gasol continues to find his game in the post. Or maybe it is just the fact that you really can’t lose every game in this league, regardless of the limitations your roster has. In any event, the Lakers are on a bit of a “hot” streak and will look to carry over that momentum into Chicago.
They will face a Bulls team that has split their last 4 games but one that has won 10 of their last 15. After going through a rough patch in the early to middle part of December, the Bulls have pulled it together and are 5th in the East (despite being a game under .500). This group plays a familiar style, grinding teams down with a top level defense even though the roster isn’t the one we’re used to seeing. Derrick Rose came back to start the year but is on the shelf again after tearing the meniscus in his knee. Luol Deng was recently traded to the Cavs (as we all know — he torched the Lakers in their last home game before the road trip began). The Bulls still have Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson but are relying more and more on third year pro Jimmy Butler (especially after the Deng trade) and first year Bulls D.J. Augustin and Mike Dunleavy Jr.
The Bulls, like the Lakers, are at an interesting crossroads however. Despite being firmly in the playoff mix, the Bulls must be seriously thinking about their future more than their present. Derrick Rose is hurt and Deng has been traded. Boozer isn’t long for this roster and whether he’s traded or amnestied in the coming off-season, it’s doubtful he is wearing the red and black next year. That only leaves Noah and Butler as core pieces for today and the future to go along with whatever draft pick they select this summer and the promising Nikola Mirotic who will likely come over from Europe next season. This has the chance to be a promising group to surround Rose, but that may also mean they start to dump assets who don’t fit into that core for pieces or cap space to help strengthen a roster not yet constructed.
That’s looking ahead, though. Tonight these two teams face off and, depleted rosters or not, both will compete hard to try and get this win.
For the Lakers, that will mean trying to continue with model that’s gotten them their past two wins. They will try to go to Gasol in the post against Noah, hoping to establish the offensive paint and get the types of good looks that not only create points but a commitment from extra defenders that will lead to open three pointers. With Pau’s ability to pick out open players on the wing and the perimeter players’ willingness to move the ball, the Lakers will then try to hit threes at a rate that can keep them ahead of a team that has the ability to play stifling defense.
Key to this will be the play of Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, and rookie Ryan Kelly. When the Lakers flank Pau and Marshall with this trio, they should be able to create the spacing that can lead to points. But that all falls through without the aforementioned trio hitting shots and being aggressive with their dribble when defenders close out at them hard. The Bulls are active defensively and will not miss many (if any) rotations so this group will need to be sharp in their decision making and lean on Gasol (and Young) to get makable shots in isolation when the clock is running down. The fact that these two will be facing off against strong defenders (Noah and Bulter) doesn’t make their jobs easy, but they will still need to perform.
On the other end of the floor, the Bulls aren’t a good offensive team and mostly rely on ball movement when running their O through their bigs to create points. Boozer and Noah can both pass well from the elbow and will serve as pressure release options out of the P&R where they will either shoot mid-range jumpers or kick to the corners to shooters when the Lakers’ D rotates. This will require active feet from the wings, moving towards Noah, Boozer, and Gibson when they make catches at the elbows and then rotating back to Dunleavy, Augustin, and Butler circling around the arc so as to not give up wide open threes. The Lakers’ bigs will also need to be their best on the glass tonight as the Bulls trio at PF and C will crash the boards hard and try to get easy baskets via put backs.
All in all, this is a winnable game for the Lakers but they will need to bring energy and smarts on both ends. The Bulls will outwork them if they bring anything less.
Where you can watch: 5pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.