Even a return to health of two of their walking wounded couldn’t help the Bulls against Thursday night, as the team continued its post All-Star break struggles with a 99-89 loss to the Trail Blazers at the United Center.
Losers of six out of their last eight games, the Bulls’ swoon was similar to many of their recent defeats, as they held their own in the first quarter, only to be run out of their own building for the remainder of the contest.
All-Star center Joakim Noah (18 points, six rebounds) got off to a quick start for the hosts, but otherwise, but it was a slow-paced contest in the early going, while for the visitors, All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (28 points, eight rebounds), originally a Bulls draft pick—he was traded on the same day back in 2006—was the catalyst in the low-scoring affair.
Noah remained an all-around presence, but Carlos Boozer (16 points, 11 rebounds) also joined in the festivities for the Bulls (36-31) as a scoring force, benefiting from starting point guard Kirk Hinrich being back in the lineup, which made for a more free-flowing offense.
Portland (32-36) rookie point guard Damian Lillard (24 points, seven assists) also made an immediate impact, showing why he should take home top first-year honors at season’s end, but a boost off the bench from the likes of Nate Robinson (eight points, nine assists), Jimmy Butler (12 points) and Taj Gibson (14 points, nine rebounds)—the latter, returning from a 10-game layoff, got a nice ovation from the home crowd upon entering the contest—kept things close.
At the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls held a 21-20 lead, with a high-flying Robinson-to-Butler alley-oop bringing the house down and supplying the home team with momentum.
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Lillard continued to lead the Blazer attack at the outset of the second period, as the guests went on a 14-0 run to start the frame, propelled by their three-point shooting.
Despite feisty interior play from Gibson, the Bulls quickly found themselves in a double-digit hole, with undersized center J.J. Hickson (21 rebounds) and backup point guard Eric Maynor also doing damage for the visitors, who built a comfortable winning margin.
Portland’s onslaught persisted throughout the period and even with Noah’s return to the floor and subsequent solid play, the hosts couldn’t make much of an inroads, as Aldridge, the Trail Blazers’ primary scoring option, lived up to that title.
With things going in the wrong direction, the Bulls trailed, 52-37, at the intermission.
After the break, the Bulls failed to slice into the deficit, as the duo of Lillard and Aldridge continued to wreak havoc, while the hosts struggled to generate any perimeter scoring, or offense in general.
Portland’s lead ballooned and the guests even enjoyed a sizeable advantage on the glass, mostly due to Hickson, as well as torrid shooting from the field, including from long range.
Suddenly, the Blazers had increased their level of separation to blowout proportions, with the likes of wings Nicolas Batum (11 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Wesley Matthews (11 points), as well as rookie backup center Meyers Leonard, a University of Illinois product, making timely contributions.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were behind, 80-53, with no signs of being able to stop the bleeding.
Whether it was Robinson’s ridiculous highlight dunk—reverse through-the-legs dribble to split the defense and a powerful one-hander in traffic—Gibson’s energy or Nazr Mohammed making his first appearance of the game, at the outset of the fourth quarter, the Bulls finally started to cut into what seemed like an insurmountable margin.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau again went with an unconventional lineup—the aforementioned trio of Gibson, Mohammed and Robinson, along with wings Butler and Marco Belinelli—something he’d utilized in the past, albeit when the team had less depth, and it worked, as the hosts at least briefly transformed the game from being a complete laugher to a somewhat competitive outing.
But Portland head coach Terry Stotts, knowing he has a team that relies on its starting five for the bulk of the scoring, kept his regulars in the contest down the stretch, preventing the Bulls from truly challenging their guests’ dominance.
While the Bulls’ second unit continued to plug away, even after the Blazers finally inserted their little-used substitutes, it was too little, far too late.