The Bulls visit the Lakers tonight and they come in flashing some of the determination, grit, and, most of all big victories, that had many installing them as the eastern conference favorites to reach the finals. They are winners in three of their last four games, with all three of the wins coming against strong Western opponents — San Antonio, Dallas, and Golden State. Their most recent win against the Warriors was one where they played with Jimmy Butler (though the Duns were missing Andrew Bogut), but were still able to gut out an overtime victory when Derrick Rose hit a clutch game winning jumper in the closing seconds.
Rose and (especially) Butler are two key reasons why teams are so high on the Bulls, but the reason most see them as a true threat is due to the addition of our old friend Pau Gasol. The Spaniard has thrived in Chicago as an anchor in the pivot, putting up strong numbers and having the type of impact those who still believed he still had something left in the tank thought he was capable of. The Bulls have offered him exactly what he needs to thrive — space in the post, a defensive scheme that limits some of his weaknesses, and teammates who compliment him on both sides of the ball — and he is taking advantage of it all.
Pau’s return to Los Angeles, then, is a bit bitter sweet. For me, personally, I am happy to see him playing so well and contributing on a team that has a chance to contend for a championship. On the other hand, I miss watching him nightly on the team I root for; I miss watching the exquisite passing, great feel for the game, and ability to act as the hub of an offense from the low post. Fact is, though, is that it was time for him to move on. The fact that things are going well for him, but so poorly for the Lakers does sting, but does not erase the good memories he provided during his time with the team.
With that, one has to wonder how fans will respond to Pau in his first game back at Staples Center since leaving in free agency. If Byron Scott has his way, Pau will be welcomed back as a former championship contributor should. Via ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:
And Lakers coach Byron Scott said fans owe Gasol one thing: “A standing ovation,” Scott said. “This is a guy that was here that helped to win two championships. He deserves that. Pau was a great player when he was here and is still a great player. He’s having a lot of success in Chicago. But I think fans should show him the respect that he deserves.”
Byron and I agree wholeheartedly here.
As for the actual game, considering who the Bulls have beaten lately and the fact that the Lakers have lost 9 straight games, I am not expecting anything different than what I wrote in leading up to the Wizards game. This is even more true with Jimmy Butler expected to return tonight to a lineup that already features Rose, Pau, and Noah. The Lakers simply do not have the front line talent to deal with these caliber of players, which is even more true with Nick Young (who hasn’t been playing great, but can explode on any given night to improve the Lakers’ chances) already ruled out with his sprained ankle.
In saying all that, there are a few things I’ll be monitoring tonight, specifically how a few Lakers fare in their individual match ups against their Bulls counterparts.
The first, of course, is Jordan Clarkson facing off against Derrick Rose. There may not be a more “trial by fire” position in the league for a young player than point guard. Clarkson has already had to defend Tony Parker and John Wall and be defended by Patrick Beverly. Tonight he faces Rose who, while not at the level he was when he won the MVP a few years ago, is still a load to deal with. I’ll be interested in seeing how Clarkson deals with the pressure Rose puts on him defensively. I’ll also be interested in seeing how he manages against a Bulls defense that is typically very good at dealing with perimeter players who love to attack off the dribble.
Secondly, I really do want to see if Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, and Tarik Black can hold their own against Pau, Noah, and Taj Gibson on both ends. The three Bulls are the superior players, no doubt. But the Lakers’ trio offer solid games of their own and have an ability to do damage in the paint on the glass and as release valves when slashing/diving/cutting around the rim. I am interested in seeing what, if anything, they do against a very good front court duo like what the Bulls offer.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.