Bulls ready for five-game western trip


Feb 2

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A long road trip, like the Bulls begin in Los Angeles Wednesday, can be a turning point for an NBA team because you hear it’s a terrific advantage for team bonding. Players can get spend more time together and continue to develop their team continuity.

That is unless they lose. Because then it will be more important to be home and sleep in your own bed—yes, those Ritz and Four Seasons beds are just boards, and get into your regular routine.

That’s right. Road bonding is a myth, except when you win, and those comfy beds are a good excuse, except if you lose.

Isn’t sports writing simple?

So how many games will the Bulls win on this trip, which concludes in New Orleans Feb. 12?

I’m saying somewhere between 2-3 and 5-0. Though the Bulls, especially with Joakim Noah still out, would settle for 3-2 since they are just 10-10 this season on the road and any winning record on a road trip is a positive.

But there are a few factors working in the Bulls’ favor on this trip:

There are no back to back sets, though that’s much overrated and an excuse coaches like to use;

The travel is moderate with the first week spent entirely in California, where it was in the 60s and sunny when the Bulls arrived Tuesday;

Then they’ll head east the second week instead of having to backtrack west and then go east to return, like often in the November trip;

They’ll have two-day breaks before the Warriors game and Hornets game, the latter to conclude the trip. So there should never be an excuse of a lack of energy with all that time off. Unless the energy is misplaced on this excursion.

So here’s a look at the five games and opponents:

Feb. 2, Clippers: Groundhog day. If we see a five o’clock shadow, it’s Vinny Del Negro. They’re not those Clippers, even with Eric Gordon out hurt now. They beat the Bulls in December when Derrick Rose missed the second of two free throws. They’re 19-28 after a 1-13 start and have won nine straight at home. And may have the league’s most exciting player this side of Rose in Blake Griffin. He’s got 39 double/doubles and you can write him down for 30 and 15 against Carlos Boozer. I’d probably play Taj Gibson against him and maybe take my chances with Boozer against the offensively challenged DeAndre Jordan, who is a good shot blocker. Gordon’s loss is big, but Randy Foye is averaging 18.6 subbing for Gordon. Del Negro has himself another competitive group after a slow start as the Clippers are starting to matter for maybe the first time ever in L.A.

“We’ve never really been able to get healthy,” said Del Negro when I caught up with him Tuesday afternoon. “(Chris) Kaman has been out most of the year and now Gordon. But Baron (Davis) got healthy and is engaged and is playing better and Blake just keeps doing what he’s doing. Blake brings that big buzz. We’re not deep enough yet where we can handle a bunch of injuries, but the guys play hard and we’re improving. We’ve won nine of the last 13, though we’ve got an 11-game road trip coming up.”

Sam note: No one should complain about their schedule with something I’ve never seen, 11 consecutive road games around the All-Star break with the team out of town from Feb. 4 through Feb. 25. They come home to play Boston and then go on the road again. Geez.

Del Negro, who coached Rose as a rookie and now has Griffin, says they are similar in being “incredible athletes, kids who want to work and get better. Blake is in the gym all the time. I don’t like to make comparisons, but they talk about Blake as Shawn Kemp in athleticism and Karl Malone in power. It’s hard to compare Blake because it’s so rare for a 6-9 guy with that kind of handle and power. I like him to rebound and kick it out, but he’ll push it himself and make a play because he’s also such a good passer.”

They’re one of the better rebounding teams and have an enthusiastic home crowd now. It should be a tough game for the Bulls.

Feb. 5, Warriors. Definitely the coolest jerseys. They’re not a knockoff anymore, either. They’re 14-10 at home and have won seven of their last 13. It could be quite the guard show with Rose against Monta Elis and Stephen Curry. The Warriors guards combine for more than 44 points per game, which is about the same as the Bulls four starters combined other than Rose. This will be a game the Bulls will need to score. The Warriors run you into that kind of game. They’re not particularly deep and have worn down at the end of games against better defensive teams, which is just about everyone. They lead the league in three point shooting and are second in steals. They want to disrupt and run, so they gamble. If you stay solid and run offense you can take advantage as David Lee isn’t a shot blocker, though Andres Biedrins has given the Bulls trouble. They have to watch out for long distance shooting four Vladimir Radmanovic.

With two days off after the Clippers, the Bulls should be able to get this kind of game.

Feb. 7, Portland. This has long been one of the Bulls toughest places to play as Rose never has won there and has lost by 42 and 24 the two times he’s played there. Overall, the Bulls have lost nine of their last 11 in the Rose Garden. Hey, it should be his garden. But the Trailblazers have been decimated by injuries with Brandon Roy and Greg Oden likely out all season and Marcus Camby the latest big man hurt. They play hard and compete and are hanging onto eighth in the Western Conference after an impressive win Tuesday over the Spurs at home, where they are 17-7. They run everything through LaMarcus Aldridge now as he’s had an All-Star season and, at least to me, is more deserving of an All-Star selection than Kevin Love and Zach Randolph. Too bad the votes were in before Aldridge had 40 against the Spurs Tuesday. They don’t have many scoring options with Wesley Matthews perhaps their only other consistent one, but they hit the offensive boards and lead the league in that category.

This is a time the Bulls should have a chance to make up for some past indignities.

Feb. 9, Utah. This is the big Return of Booz. It’s not likely to be a warm welcome home for Carlos Boozer, who was involved in almost constant controversies with the Jazz over injuries and then his free agency when he began campaigning to go to the Bulls or Heat. It’s also a return for Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, who should receive a more favorable reception. It’s been a huge struggle for the Jazz and a team seemingly headed down. They’ve lost seven of nine, and actually won their last two with Deron Williams out with a sore wrist, though Williams should be back by then. The Jazz is small up front with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and don’t have real scoring off the wings. They generally are overrated as a defensive team because they play hard under coach Jerry Sloan. The Bulls have had reasonable success here, three wins in the last seven, and against better Jazz teams that this one. They are 17-8 at home, though. Rose and Williams are regarded by many as the league’s best point guards now and it should be a battle.

But it is a good opportunity for the Bulls to get a win against a team that is struggling.

Feb. 12, Hornets. Monty Williams joined the Bulls Tom Thibodeau as coaches of the month, the rookies bringing a defensive edge to their teams. By the way, Thibodeau can make those All Star vacation plans as with Boston’s win in Sacramento Tuesday, Doc Rivers clinched the East All Star game coaching spot. Gregg Popovich will coach the West team. The Bulls may get a break with Emeka Okafor out and not certain to return by then. He’s been big for them this season among the league leaders in rebounding and blocks. It’s unclear how they’ll be able to maintain their defensive edge with Aaron Gray having to play. Noah may beg to return for that. They’ve been one of the league’s best teams in points allowed and defensive shooting percentage, though that was with Okafor. Chris Paul hasn’t been quite as dominant coming off his knee surgery last summer, but still excellent. Again, another classic point guard matchup for Rose that should be entertaining.

But it’s a tough team that is 20-5 at home and winners of 11 of their last 13 at the end of a trip, though the Bulls should have no excuses with two days off before the game.

The Bulls going 4-1 is possible, but 1-4 is just as easy to believe. I know, make a pick! OK, I’m saying 3-2.

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