There may not be a bigger representation of how quickly the NBA can change than today’s game between the Lakers and the Bulls. On one hand, you have the Lakers, who through 13 games have already accumulated 7 wins — which is only 10 fewer than they tallied all last season. Luke Walton and the players have installed a new philosophy and turned this program around to the point where they are no longer recognizable.
On the other side of the floor you have the Bulls. Long time stalwarts Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are now Knicks. Dwyane Wade, who was supposed to be a Heat lifer, has returned to his native Chicago for his swan song. He’s joined by Rajon Rondo and the calvary of players obtained via the Rose trade to form a new look Bulls team. This group is defending better than expected and finding ways to score efficiently even though many pundits wondered how things would work on that side of the ball where spacing and isolation tendencies bump up against head coach Fred Hoiberg’s ideal style of play.
These two teams, then, have seemingly been remade overnight, and both are surprising with a better adaptation to circumstances than anticipated. Which brings us to today’s game.
First, some housekeeping. D’Angelo Russell is listed as questionable after missing Friday’s game against the Spurs with a sore knee. He was given Saturday off and with no shootaround scheduled for today, he will not be analyzed by the training staff until he arrives to the arena for the game. I have zero feel for how this plays out, honestly. After Saturday’s practice, Walton said Russell has been playing through pain in his knee, but he complained about it a bit more before the Spurs so the medical staff “shut him down”. My guess (and hope) is that the staff continues to be cautious with him, it’s a long season after all. So I am not optimistic he plays. We’ll see.
As for the Bulls, they are coming off a hard fought game against the Clippers on Saturday so they get the vaunted two nights in LA while playing a back-to-back schedule treatment from the league. As the old saying goes, the Los Angeles night life is undefeated. So, when adding the potential for a late night in LA and coming off a game, there is a potential for fatigue from the Bulls side.
Whether or not fatigue plays a part, when it comes to the match ups the Bulls offer a couple of interesting problems. First is Jimmy Butler. He is the Bulls’ best player and the type of two way talent the Lakers are hoping to cultivate in their young guys. Butler has been playing great basketball of late, both scoring and playmaking for others while playing his typical defense. I’ll be interested in seeing whether Deng or Young draws Jimmy defensively. I’m even more interested in seeing whether either can be effective.
Whichever of the Young/Deng duo draws Jimmy doesn’t mean the other guy gets a break, though. Wade may be aged, but he’s still very effective and has found some life in his return home. He’s shooting the three-ball more, and doing so effectively. He’s also still a fantastic slasher, can still handle in the P&R, and has natural playmaking instincts. If Deng ends up on Wade (which is likely, I believe), he’s going to have to do a lot of chasing and stay aware off ball as Wade moves into creases. (UPDATE: Dwyane Wade will not play vs. the Lakers due to rest. He played 35 minutes against the Clippers Saturday, so this makes sense. We will see how this impacts the Bulls, but it should help the Lakers as it removes another attack player who gets downhill on drives — which is an area the Lakers have been struggling to defend of late.)
Another problem the Bulls pose is their ability to hit the offensive glass. They rank 1st in the NBA in OReb rate with Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson, and Bobby Portis all chasing ORebs hard. Those guys pressure the defense to finish possessions by securing the ball and if they don’t, the Bulls will punish them by extending possessions. The Lakers rank 11th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, but they will likely need to be better than that vs. the Bulls tonight.
If the Lakers can close out possessions with rebounds, though, they have a chance to do some damage in transition. The Bulls do not surrender great numbers of transition points, but the Lakers can pressure them in this area, especially with Julius Randle grabbing and going or the team’s guards and wings looking to push for early offense. Per NBA.com/stats, the Lakers score the Lakers score the 6th most points per play in transition this season and have scored the 9th most transition points in the league this season. The Bulls also work well in transition, but their overall pace is slow compared to a Lakers’ team who likes to play at one of the fastest tempos in the league. If the Lakers can tilt the pace of the game in their favor, they may be able to force the action and get the Bulls on their heels.
Another area which can be a difference maker is the ability to hit the three ball. The Laker are 10th in the league in 3-point makes whereas the Bulls are 25th in the NBA. On average, the Lakers make a shade over two 3-pointers more per game than the Bulls. If they can carry that advantage forward (or even expand it) in this game, they’ll work from a position of strength and force the Bulls to make up those points in other areas. If the Lakers can then keep the Bulls off the FT line and not surrender too many 2nd chance points, they’ll be in a very good position tonight.
Again, we have discussed the difficulty of the Lakers’ schedule and the Bulls, at 8-5, are a part of that. However, considering the circumstances of this game — at Staples, Bulls on a back to back — this represents a better opportunity for the Lakers to get a W than might be otherwise implied. Let’s see if they can take advantage.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on Spectrum Sportsnet.