Bulls get new, less threatening Lakers for opener


Dec 24

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The NBA generally tries to set the premier Christmas Day game matchups as possible Finals previews. So, predictably, the Miami Heat play the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and the Bulls play the Los Angeles Lakers.

And how delicious would that encore be once again after 20 years when the Bulls won their first NBA championship in Los Angeles in 1991.

So enjoy this one with a Christmas dinner:

Derrick Rose against Steve Blake

Luol Deng against Devin Ebanks

Carlos Boozer against Josh McRoberts


Yes, folks, that’s your post-Phil Jackson Lakers and they are in deep, deep trouble.

Yes, they have Kobe Bryant, who, by the way has a torn ligament in the wrist of his shooting hand but is playing. He reported it still “swollen and painful” Friday and was mostly shooting left handed in practice. He said he’ll “probably” shoot right handed in Sunday’s game.

That should be interesting.

The Lakers do have Pau Gasol, a perennial All-Star, who, by the way, the Lakers tried to trade a few weeks ago for Chris Paul, only to see the deal overturned by the league and commissioner Davis Stern. Yes, they love you Pau. At least until they can find a way to get Dwight Howard.

Though that’s what perhaps makes it scary for the Bulls, who seem to have so much of an edge in this game the tendency might be to look ahead toward games with tougher teams Monday and Thursday in Golden State and Sacramento.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, predictably, and it, frankly, is how coaches must approach these things, talked about the Lakers before the team headed out West as if it’s the 1972 team that won 33 straight.

“They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of experience. So we’re going to have to be ready,” Thibodeau said. “They have great depth (Metta World Peace?). They have guys coming in who are experienced, (Troy) Murphy, (Matt) Barnes, Blake, McRoberts. Those guys have been through a lot of different situations. They’re going to be tough.”

I really thought the tough part was having to listen to that with a straight face. I don’t fault Thibodeau because you don’t want your team ever overconfident, and I believe, perhaps more than ever, this regular season is going to be about being mentally strong to play through the compressed schedule, to push hard to catch teams trying to relax or ease through a busy week. The Lakers, for example, open the season with a three-game back to back to back starting Sunday.

But, really, look at who they are coming out there with. I’m not sure any of those guys Thibodeau mentioned, as well as three of their starters, could make the Bulls 10-player rotation.

Thibodeau was coy about who would play Bryant, though you’d believe it would have to be Richard Hamilton. Hamilton always has been a good defender, if not great, and certainly is annoying with his constant motion. Kobe is likely going to try to come out and get the crowd into it to enable the momentum and emotion of the day to carry the Lakers.

So it will be on Hamilton, and then, presumably, Ronnie Brewer to bother him if not bash him on his wrist. Don’t want to make him mad, after all.

Hamilton did well against Bryant when the Pistons upset the Lakers in the 2004 Finals, and Hamilton told reporters they go back a long way in their matchups as Hamilton is from Pennsylvania, where Kobe played his high school basketball.

“It was a fun time,” said Hamilton. “At the time, Kobe was No. 1 in the state. I was No. 2. Played on the same AAU team, so we were good friends. It was a fun thing, because the two best players pretty much went against each other in one of the biggest games at the Palestra. It’s fun (playing him). Like I said, we’ve been knowing each other since we were 16, playing on the same team and getting an opportunity to play in high school and the Finals. Just make it tough on both ends. As hard as you’ve got to guard him, you’ve got to force him to guard you also.

“When the ball’s thrown up, a lot of guys are able to tune that (injury) out and go ahead and compete, so you can’t look at that as a disadvantage,” said Hamilton. It’s fun. It’s exciting (being with the Bulls in a Christmas Day game). It’s real good to be back in a situation where people want to see you play and you’ve got a chance to have a special season. It’s the first game of many and we just want to be prepared to go out and try to get a win.”

It wasn’t too long ago that the Lakers seemed unbeatable with Kobe and the biggest front line in basketball. But after the aborted trade, Lamar Odom apparently became depressed (perhaps over Kris Humphries no longer being his brother-in-law) and asked to be traded and for some reason was dealt to the Mavericks for basically luxury tax savings. Andrew Bynum, having embarrassed himself with a puerile display in the Lakers being swept out of last season’s playoffs by the Mavs, comes into the season suspended. So, yes, the Lakers power players after Pau, never quite the bruiser, are two guys who barely could get on the court for the Indiana Pacers.

Derek Fisher tries to negotiate his way into the lineup, apparently, after his summer of labor discontent, and the former Ron Artest has officially become a cartoon character, though not necessarily with his curious name change (never quite the peacemaker in Indiana, as I recall) but with a series of bizarre preseason statements, some extra weight and a spot coming off the bench.

All this for new coach Mike Brown, who was fired by LeBron before LeBron left town. The Lakers basically eliminated all traces of Phil Jackson, firing his staff as well and despite the biggest local TV deal in NBA history dumped most of their veteran scouting staff while the vast majority of NBA teams kept their staffs during the labor mess.

So you find the Lakers no longer playing the triangle offense, which would benefit them now with their lack of athletic players. Brown views himself as a defensive expert, however, and with the Cavs generally let assistants run the offense. He threw out traps in the preseason games won by the Clippers, though you figure Rose might have some counters to that.

For the Bulls, I’d expect them to continue the pace from the second preseason game to push the ball at the Lakers with Rose and Hamilton running. I don’t see Kobe very excited about doing that. Rose once again in Hamilton, like with Ben Gordon, also has someone to take pressure off him in the backcourt.

I also look for Boozer to get something going. You can see the way he came into camp in so much better condition that while he doesn’t say it he’d like to regain some of that respect and affection from the local community.

In the preseason, I also thought Noah was crucial the way he relentlessly defended and ran the court. It’s not something Gasol likes to do and should be an advantage for the Bulls. Still hanging over the team is the history of injuries for Noah, Boozer and Omer Asik, which could derail whatever hopes the Bulls have of a championship.

Despite being the favorite of few — I saw a poll of ESPN writers with 25 of 30 picking Miami to win the title — the Bulls have come into the season seeming to be a quietly confident group after last season’s experience and filling the shooting guard hole that seemed such an issue for mush of last season.

It’s more sprint this time with the Bulls opening with a difficult stretch of their only long Western Conference trip the first week and seven of nine on the road in the first two weeks of the season.

But Thibodeau doesn’t allow anyone to look ahead, other than perhaps the staff who makes hotel reservations.

“We don’t look ahead,” he said. “We concentrate on what’s in front of us. I know it’s a cliché, but you have to go step by step. Every team in this league is capable of beating you. It’s the NBA. Everyone is talented. You’ve got to be ready to play.”

It’s at that point I wondered aloud if the Bulls could make the playoffs. Thibodeau, however, doesn’t always grasp my unique wit, or half of it. Though I have to admit he seems better with the message to the team than I might be.

“We just want to do the right things each and every day and the results will take care of themselves,” he said. “Rebounding, defense, low turnovers. You do those three things and you are constantly in position to win.”

I’d also say facing Devin Eubanks, Steve Blake and Josh McRoberts. But that’s just me.

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