CHICAGO | Portland and Chicago are two of the up-and-coming teams in the league and either could make the difficult leap from second tier to elite as soon as this season. The teams hooked up at the United Center on Monday night, and while the Bulls' 110-98 win was telling in some ways, it's hard to get a read on these teams just yet. We'll know more about them when Joel Przybilla, Greg Oden and Carlos Boozer get healthy. Oden worked out on the floor before the game, which I didn't see, but I can report that he worked up a good sweat. Boozer was wearing a snappy suit. He got his cast off on Tuesday, and we should soon have a better idea when he'll return.
As always, here are five takeaways from Monday's game:
1. A Rose is a Rose but not always the same Rose. After seven quarters of uneven offensive basketball, the Bulls have been lights-out in their last five. Tom Thibodeau refers to Rose as his quarterback, the guy who determines if the Bulls are going to run and where the weak spots are in the opponent's defense. Rose responded to this responsibility by taking nearly a shot per minute in the Bulls' first two games. It wasn't selfishness really, it's just that those were the shots presenting themselves and if Rose wasn't creating a shot, then it wasn't going to get created. Against Portland, the Blazers were hyper-focused on Rose. They blitzed him aggressively and Andre Miller spent most of his evening trying to keep the ball out of Rose's hands. Rose only took 11 shots in the game, but he had 13 assists, which tied his career high. As Rose adapts to Thibodeau's offense, he's still got some rough edges to work out. He still clearly is more comfortable finding his own shot than setting up others, and his turnovers are also up as he and his teammates learn the intricacies of Thibodeau's fairly complex scheme. However, Chicago's ball movement was impressive against the Blazers and 11 different guys broke into the scoring column. The Bulls know that Rose can take over a game offensively whenever it's called for. However, it's the Rose we saw on Monday that will be most prevalent in a high-functioning Bulls attack.
2.LaMarcable. I have this image of LaMarcus Aldridge standing in the corner, taking an endless stream of baseline jumpers. I guess I haven't been paying close enough attention, as Aldridge's work in the post is a essential part of the Blazers' deliberate attack. According to Synergy, last season Aldridge got 45 percent of his looks in post-ups, the 10th-highest ratio in the league. He averaged .91 points on those plays, which placed him in the 66th percentile of the league. Not bad, but could be better. Against Chicago, against whom he was very effective with a season-best 33 points, I was struck by how often Aldridge went with his initial thought and made aggressive moves into the lane. In the past, I've thought that he tends to default to a counter move that terminates too often in a fadeaway shot. He rarely, at least in the past, seemed willing to go strong at the rim, which is why his career foul-drawing rates haven't typically been great. Aldridge went 9-of-9 from the line against the Bulls and was the primary reason why all four big men in Chicago's current rotation got into foul trouble. Aldridge's early foul-drawing rate is six percent higher than projected and if he keeps up this proactive approach to working in the lane, it'll be a great boon to the Blazers' offense.
3. Korver finds some space. Sharp-shooting Kyle Korver got precious few open looks during Chicago's first two games, largely a result of working on a second unit that is still trying to establish an offensive pecking order. Just as Rose helms the Bulls' first unit, C.J. Watson is supposed to helm the second, but Watson is a fish out of water in that scheme, and the Bulls offense has fallen off a cliff when Rose has been out of the game. Watson has his uses, but let's focus on Korver, who had two three-point attempts in the first two games. Against Portland, Korver shared the floor with Rose a little more, and the result was an 11-point, 4-assist outing in 22 minutes of court time. Korver's relentless movement away from the ball pays dividends when the defense is focused elsewhere and, of course, the spot-up opportunities from three-point range are going to be more frequent because of Rose's driving ability and the tempo the Bulls play at when he's on the floor. Korver struggles to guard quick forwards, much less two guards, though he's far from useless on the defensive end. He's heady, stronger than he looks and has good instincts. He just doesn't have the lateral quickness to be an effective on-ball defender out on the floor. Still, Korver's value will be maximized by playing him at the same time as Rose, especially when Thibodeau goes with the big lineup featuring Omer Asik and Joakim Noah manning the five and four spots, respectively, a configuration that has been very effective so far for the Bulls and can help paper over Korver's defensive liabilities.
4. Fouling up Bulls defense. The Bulls rank second in the league in opponent eFG% and rank in the middle of the pack in cleaning off the defensive glass even though one of their three games has been against Portland, the NBA's second-best team on the offensive boards. Chicago hasn't yet forced many turnovers but its three opponents to date (Oklahoma City, Detroit and Portland) and rank in the league's top 10 in taking care of the ball. It's a pretty good combination of factors for a Bulls defense still learning how to execute Thibodeau's time-worn system. Nevertheless, Chicago's No. 9 ranking in Defensive Rating is, while solid, a little disappointing for one reason: Rampant fouling. The Bulls apparently not only imported half the Jazz's roster from last season, but also Utah's perennial knack for leading the league in fouling. The Bulls have committed a league-worst 29 fouls per game in the early part of the season. Some coaches, like Utah's Jerry Sloan and Milwaukee's Scott Skiles, will live with a high foul rate because of the tradeoff for consistent, physical play. Thibodeau isn't one of those guys, however, even though the Celtics were a little foul-happy during the first two seasons the first-time head coach oversaw Boston's defense. (That wasn't so much the case last season.)
Thibodeau bemoaned the team's foul trouble during his postgame presser, and center Joakim Noah added, "We definitely need to clean up our fouling because I think teams are having a hard time scoring in our half court defense. We keep putting them at the line and letting teams off the hook with our fouling."
Noah isn't a numbers guy, but he's absolutely right.
5. A Deng good night. No Bulls player benefits more from Thibodeau's new offense than Deng, who put up a career high 40 points against Portland and needed only 19 shots to get there. The best part was that Deng didn't dominate the ball. As Korver noted after the game, everything Deng got was an extension of the halfcourt offense or in transition, so even though he was having such a big night, all of the Bulls were able to share in the bounty. Deng has extended his range this season and is going to play long minutes because how much Thibodeau loves his defense. As long as his stroke stays consistent, Deng is a good bet to have his best season as a professional, something which should prevent the Bulls' front office from getting overly enamored of Carmelo Anthony scenarios.
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