The Chicago Bulls visit the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night and they’ll be looking to continue the best start to their annual Circus Road Trip in 20 years.
It can’t really be overstated – the Bulls are winning again and doing it at times and places they haven’t been able to win going back to the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Perhaps, it’s more appropriate than we realize since Jimmy Butler is putting up stats that haven’t been equaled since Pippen.
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Chicago blew the Trail Blazers out of the water on Tuesday night, using a huge first quarter to establish an insurmountable lead.
On Thursday, the Bulls benefited from the Utah Jazz holding out two of their starters – George Hill and Derrick Favors.
It hasn’t been all luck that has led the Bulls to a season-high four-game win streak. Butler has being playing at an entirely different level than ever before and Robin Lopez has combined solid interior defense with something fresh for Chicago in a consistent offensive presence at center.
Los Angeles is going to be a two-day affair, first up are the Clippers. The Bulls enter Saturday nights’ game with a record of 8-4, good enough to put them in the top five of the Eastern Conference. Their LA opponents are 11-2, best in the league. It looked like the game in Portland was lining up to be a real test of Chicago’s merit, instead the game might have done more to explain just how disappointing the Blazers are this year. Utah could have been a test, but the Jazz absences drastically reduced that opportunity.
There’s a lot of known quantity about the Bulls, but this will be a real test. No way around it, even if the Clips are on the second game of a back-to-back after being pushed to the limit by the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.
Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) reacts to hitting a three-point shot at the first-half buzzer against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
It feels like it doesn’t even need to be said at this point of the season. All Butler has done is play like one of the two or three best two-way wings in the entire league. It seemed like the gap between Butler and Kawhi Leonard might be widening, with Leonard leaving Butler behind, but so far this season that hasn’t been the case.
Butler is one of the Three Alphas, but to date he’s been the One Alpha on the court. Wade has had some big games because has been inconsistent and doesn’t bring the same ability and effort on the defensive end of the floor that he contributes on offense. Wade is the Alpha that brings the PR and media savvy. Rajon Rondo is the Alpha that thinks he’s an Alpha and everyone else plays along because they don’t want to be mean to “Jerian Grant’s backup.”
Through 11 games, Butler has put up at least seven assists three times, has double-doubles in points and rebounds against the Blazers and the Jazz, and put up a ridiculous 37 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and three steals against the Washington Wizards a week ago.
Everything is coming up Butler right now. He’s absolutely playing the best basketball of his career right now and that is the only saving grace for this Chicago squad. He’s not going to have an easy night, Luc Mbah a Moute isn’t a big offensive threat, but he should be a stout defender. Perhaps they even throw J.J. Redick at Butler occasionally. Doubles could come from DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin, too. Given that, Butler will need to stay in the flow where he is the primary ball handler or staying in motion and away from ISO post-ups.
If I had to bet, I’d lean on a big offensive night from Butler if he avoids those double team situations if he is matched up defensively with Mbah a Moute. He might slump a bit if they have him trying to chase Redick all night as that will sap a lot of the energy he’ll need to carry this team offensively. And that will be something to watch. Wade can’t stick with Redick for 38 minutes, McDermott hasn’t been cleared from concussion protocol to rejoin team, and that means you’re trusting Redick coverage to Isaiah Canaan or Denzel Valentine if Rajon Rondo doesn’t play and Jerian Grant plays as the primary point guard again.
Butler probably doesn’t have a third consecutive double-double in him, but expect the scoring and defense to be in full effect.
Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez (8) leaves the court after a victory over the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Chicago won 85-77. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
I’d like to think that Chicago’s front office looked at my fantasy team and then decided to do me a solid by having Lopez at as a major fulcrum of the Bulls offense. That’s probably not how it actually works, but it feels like it for me.
Lopez was an adjustment for everyone from fans to players. He can’t play perimeter defense, can pass as well as the former Bulls big man, but offers much better interior defense and a legitimate scoring option. The Bulls had Joakim Noah for so long, they probably had no idea what was going on the first time Lopez popped a 15-footer. And he can repeat that over and over. But he can also play fantastic offense in the interior with his back to the basket.
Despite having considerably lower shooting percentages over the past four games, all of which were Chicago wins, he’s also been shooting the ball more than other Bulls. His shot attempt totals the past four games: 20, 16, 15, 16. He broke 40 percent on his field goals in two of those games and was shooting closer to 30 percent in the other two. His conversion rate isn’t high, but he is still playing an integral role for the Bulls. In fact, despite his low percentage of scoring success, he has double-digit scoring in each of those games and he’s riding three consecutive double-doubles of his own, grabbing more rebounds than points in two of the last three games.
This is important for Saturday night’s game because he’s going to be matching up with DeAndre Jordan. Jordan does two things better than almost any other center: Dunk and rebound. Jordan is fourth in the league in rebounding at 12.5 per game, just behind Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and league-leading Hassan Whiteside.
It won’t be an easy task, but even if Lopez doesn’t keep up his double-double pace, he can still be a game-changer. The key will be playing great defense and prevent free rim runs from Jordan for lobs from Chris Paul. He’ll be in trouble if the Clippers run a lot of very high pick-and-roll sets where he’ll be drawn out of the paint and into an area where he’ll be tasked with trying to impeded Paul, hoping for help behind him.
His offensive ability will be his biggest defensive skill. If he can get up a bunch of shots again or put himself in position to get a lot of looks at the basket, he might be able to draw fouls on Jordan early. This is the same kind of approach that a lot of teams use with Whiteside when playing Miami. Attack the player and see if you can get the foul count run up early enough that it forces him to sit, taking away a big piece of their attack.
If Lopez hits his season averages of 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds, it should be enough when combined with his defense. But only if he doesn’t need 20 shots to get his nine points and if he can use his offensive ability to get Jordan off the floor early.
Mar 24, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard JJ Redick (4) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) after making the game-winning shot during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center. The Clippers won 96-94. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Paul and J.J. Redick
Primarily, this is about Paul. He’s one of the best point guards, if not the best point guard, of his generation. His numbers are slightly down early on this season, 17.8 points and 8.6 assists per game, compared to his last three seasons during which he averaged about 19 and 10. Still, Chicago would be happy to get anywhere near that kind of production out of Rondo and Grant combined.
He’s going to create a lot of problems for Chicago. They don’t have a perfect matchup for him defensively. If they run a high pick-and-roll, he’s going to make quick work of Lopez or find Jordan rolling to the rim against a late help from either Taj Gibson or basically not help from Nikola Mirotic or Bobby Portis.
Sidenote: This is going to make an interesting case for the role that Cristiano Felicio plays in this game given he is a much stronger defender than either Portis or Mirotic and could be paired nicely with Gibson or Lopez while those players rest or sit for foul trouble.
Paul is going to have the advantage regardless of how they try to address him in matchups. If you put Butler on him, that’s going to free up Redick and Mbah a Moute, maybe even Griffin. If you put Wade on him, it might not be all that bad, but then you’re forcing a switch with Redick.
Redick is playing great basketball this season, possibly the best of his career. He’s currently shooting 50 percent from 3-point range for the season. He really poured it on over the past two games, scoring 29 and 26, with a combined tally of 13-for-20 from beyond the arc in that span.
Always play a hot hand and Redick is hot right now. LA has set up their starting squad to be one of the most difficult to deal with in all professional basketball. If you find someone on your roster who can track Redick the entire game, they’ve got Paul dishing to Jordan or Griffin or putting up his own 15-17 points per game.
A big game from either of these players could spell trouble for the Bulls. If both players get their games going, the Chicago backcourt will be severely exposed.
Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Isaiah Canaan (0) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
The Bulls are riding a four-game winning streak. They also have one of the best players in the NBA, Butler, riding a hot streak of his own. However, they’re playing the best team in the league right now. A team that features incredibly difficult matchups at four of their five starting positions.
Generally, the home team, and better team, have the advantage. The Bulls are standing on the other side, defying odds and doing things that no Chicago team has done for two decades.
You could go either way on this one, the Clippers are coming off a game the night before where they barely edged out a feisty Kings team while the Bulls are coming off a day of rest.
The Bulls don’t really have any answers for the LA Clippers starting lineup, but could exploit a weak Clips bench.
Player of the Game: J.J. Redick
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
I want to pick the Bulls, but at some point, all teams must lose. It’s not an easy choice because the second game of a back-to-back for the good, but also aging LA team. This game has the potential to be the litmus test Chicago needs and was supposed to get against the Blazers and Jazz. Finally, the Bulls will play a team that is very good and has their full complement of players available for the contest. Chicago probably puts up a good fight, because they know that they have a back-to-back against a particularly pesky Lakers squad tomorrow.