Trail Blazers-Bulls Preview
To start the season, it was difficult to look at Portland's roster and feel right calling them the Trail Blazers. Things started very poorly but a respectable identity has since emerged.
Similarly, Chicago's minutes aren't exactly being spread among the names one might traditionally expect to make up the Bulls.
Portland's in-season shift has legitimate roots as it begins a six-game road trip Saturday night in Chicago, while the Bulls are trying to stay afloat as they wait for key players to return.
On Jan. 8, Chicago (30-27) was 22-12, three games back of Cleveland for the Central Division lead and enjoying a six-game winning streak. Portland (30-28) had just lost its third straight to fall to 15-24 with nine teams ahead of it in the Western Conference as it continued to look for answers after a drastic offseason overhaul.
The 15-4 run that's followed has featured 108.7 points per game after the Blazers were held to 100.9 until that point, though they did just see their season-best six-game winning streak come to an end in Thursday's 119-105 home loss to Houston.
Damian Lillard was held to 6-of-20 shooting for 23 points, but most of the concerns came on the other end. The Rockets shot 53.7 percent - the Blazers are 0-9 when teams make half their shots - and they outscored Portland 62-26 in the paint while overcoming a 15-point halftime deficit.
"Sometimes when you play so well, you forget how hard what you were actually doing is," Lillard told the team's official website. "We got up on them, then they saw a few shots go in. They kept competing, they stuck with it and they played like a desperate team. We kind of took our lead for granted, took what we had been doing for granted and they found like and came back and won the game."
Lillard was probably due for a letdown. The guard had scored at least 30 in his previous five games, and despite the rough shooting night, he's averaging 33.7 points and shooting 46.6 percent and 41.5 from 3-point range in his last six.
Chicago began the season series with a 93-88 road win on Nov. 24 and has won the last two, but that victory came with Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah on the floor. It also came with Lillard struggling to take on a larger role, which has obviously since changed. He was held to 4-of-22 shooting for 19 points
"Any time you go on the road it's tough," said Lillard, who has watched the Bulls go 8-15 over the last month and a half. "But they're a really good team, a top Eastern Conference team when they're healthy. We've just got to have our minds right and it's always good to start a road trip off right. That first game we've got to really be locked in and we've got to set the tone for the trip."
The Bulls are stopping home for a game after Friday's 103-88 loss in Atlanta ended a three-game winning streak, though they've still got a three-game home streak going. Coach Fred Hoiberg is more concerned with a turnover issue that's crept up with Chicago averaging 18.5 in the last two games with Rose sidelined by right hamstring tendinitis.
"That's all we've talked about for the last two days is taking care of the basketball," Hoiberg said. "You don't give yourself a chance to win when you have careless turnovers like that."
Pau Gasol had 16 points and 17 rebounds but was 6 of 22, but Doug McDermott had 20 points and is averaging that many on 62.0 percent and 8 of 15 from 3-point range in his last four games. He'd never reached 20 in a game before scoring 30 last Friday.
"We've got to hold down the fort 'til everybody comes back," forward Taj Gibson said. "But we've got a shot."