Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

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Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010
7:47 p.m.

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

So, what are your expectations for the upcoming seven game road trip? How many games do you think the Bulls will win?

I'm going with three, which means a slightly below .500, (3-4) trip. The key is getting off to a fast start. The Bulls have two winnable games right off the bat against the Warriors and Clippers. They beat Golden State in overtime at the U.C. last month, and the Warriors are the worst defensive team in the league. On top of that, they've been decimated by injuries all season long, playing one game last month with only six healthy players. Unfortunately, some of those injured players are coming back, starting with underrated center Andris Biedrins, who missed last month's game in Chicago, and has really killed the Bulls in the past. Biedrins is a good match-up for Joakim Noah. He can run the floor and does a good job crashing the offensive glass for easy putbacks. And, with Golden State's line-up filled with three-point gunners, there are usually plenty of rebounds to be grabbed. The Warriors haven't exactly been Team Harmony this season. Head coach Don Nelson just wants to get enough wins to pass Lenny Wilkens on the all-time list, and then he'll disappear into retirement in Hawaii. He's feuded openly with his best player, Monta Ellis, and benched former Fenwick high school star Corey Maggette earlier in the season. Maggette is getting big minutes again, and he's still one of the better points per minute scorers in the league, with an innate ability to get to the free throw line. Reportedly, he's available in trade as are most of the Golden State players, but Maggette's skills probably don't fit the type of player the Bulls would like to add, plus he has several more years remaining on a contract that will pay him almost 10 million dollars a season.

Top draft pick Stephen Curry is starting for Golden State after getting limited minutes early in the season, and he's starting to show how valuable he can be as a prolific three-point shooter, He still needs to work on his strength for the NBA game, but there's little doubt he should have a long and successful career. The Warriors are always dangerous because of their ability to score, but the Bulls should be able to take advantage of their non-existent defense to win a high-scoring game.

Next up is the Clippers, who found out last week they won't have last summer's number one overall draft pick, Blake Griffin, for a single regular season minute because of a fractured left kneecap. The Clips were trying to hang on in the Western Conference playoff race until Griffin returned, and they do have pretty good talent with players like Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al Thornton. But again, this is a game the Bulls should be able to win if they take advantage of the Clippers' tendency to fall apart late in close games.

The schedule gets tougher after that with games in Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, but none of those teams should be considered unbeatable. My best guess is the Bulls will win in Phoenix or New Orleans. The Suns are really struggling right now, losing four of their last five games, with Steve Nash starting to come back to earth a bit after playing near his previous M.V.P. level early in the season. Phoenix lost by 26 at Charlotte last week, and their defense has pretty much disappeared with most opponents scoring well over 100 points in recent games. Bulls' fans will get a close-up look at Amare Stoudemire, who was linked to the team in trade speculation last year, and might be one of the Bulls' targets in free agency next summer. Stoudemire looks to be fully recovered from his off-season eye surgery, averaging 21 points and 9 rebounds a game. He's probably fourth or fifth on the Bulls' wish list behind LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh and possibly, Joe Johnson.

New Orleans is another fringe playoff team in the West. They're playing better after Byron Scott was fired as head coach, and replaced by General Manager Jeff Bower and top assistant Tim Floyd. But more importantly, Chris Paul is healthy again after suffering a bad ankle sprain early in the year. Paul is one of the top 10 players in the league, and the Hornets will need to do everything in their power to keep a competitive team around him, or he might look for greener pastures when his contract expires. There have been rumors New Orleans might be interested in trading David West to Cleveland for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract to reduce their payroll. I'm guessing that's not a deal Paul would appreciate after seeing his friend Tyson Chandler get traded in the off-season.

Bottom line, the Bulls are still a team capable of beating the best teams in the league, or losing to the worst. Even after that impressive win at Boston last week, their road record is just 4-13 and that's not good enough for a team with hopes of making the playoffs. We should learn a lot about where the Bulls are headed when the seven-game trip is over. Winning three or four games will keep the Vinny Del Negro speculation from heating up, and give the Bulls a decent chance of getting to the All-Star break close to the .500 mark. And, a good showing by Derrick Rose might earn him a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, ending the Bulls' shutout streak that goes back to the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1998. The Bulls have looked like a much improved offensive team in winning seven of their last 10 games, with John Salmons finally finding the range from the three-point line and Rose and Luol Deng capable of carrying the scoring load on a given night.

Let's hope that improvement continues on the trip. What do you think? Please post your comments and expectations for the trip in the section below. Enjoy the hoops!

Bulls: Could a knee injury have slowed Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter against Celtics?

Bulls: Could a knee injury have slowed Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter against Celtics?

As Jimmy Butler sat with his sweat-soaked jersey still attached to his body, Dwyane Wade yelled out that all the hot water was gone from the TD Garden showers, a fitting end to a miserable night.

Butler hadn't yet gone to the showers because electrodes were attached to his knees, but it was the left one that prevented him from being as aggressive as he should have been in the Bulls' 108-97 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday night.

Butler's 30-foot buzzer-beater to end the third quarter seemed to indicate a harbinger of things to come, giving the Bulls an 81-79 lead. A fourth-quarter explosion likely would have sent the Bulls back to Chicago with a 3-2 lead and a chance to clinch the series at home Friday night.

But he could only muster two shots and barely seemed to push off on his left foot—his lead foot, and it hampered what the Bulls could do late as he was their prime fourth-quarter performer.

He couldn't even go straight up on a jumper over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas without pump-faking, throwing off his rhythm. He wouldn't elaborate on the injury, although he said it happened during the second half of Game 4 on Sunday night when he collided with a Celtics player.

"I'm good. Everyone's a little nicked up; I'll be all right," Butler said in the locker room.

Going 6-for-15 overall, one would have thought Butler was conserving his energy, but he clearly didn't have his usual spunk. It was partly the reason Dwyane Wade took over more, with 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but having Butler around could have helped close a game that got away from them in a four-minute stretch where the Bulls lost their composure.

Wade has had to play through his share of injuries during his career, and although he wouldn't divulge whatever Butler was going through, it seemed as if they had a conversation about managing his body.

"We've talked about it. When you've had any limitations no matter what, at this time of year people are banged-up," Wade said. "It's expected. But we have to do a better job of putting him in different places on the basketball floor.

"I don't know exactly what he's going through or what he's feeling, but it's tough when you are, and you try to beat a guy from halfcourt to the rim, or three defenders. So we've got to a better job of finding areas for him to work without having to work so hard. That's on all of us."

Bulls Talk Podcast: Breaking down the Game 5 loss

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Breaking down the Game 5 loss

Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue analyze Game 5 between the Bulls and Celtics, how the Bulls can correct their mistakes for Friday night and whether Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade have enough left in the tank to win two straight against the top seed in the Eastern Conference.