Lakers Vs. Bulls Preview: Pau Gasol Returns Home
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Pau Gasol managed to reinvent himself as a fixture in Los Angeles Lakers history immediately upon his arrival in 2008. The Lakers were a floundering organization at that point, on the brink of losing Kobe Bryant in free agency. Management was allegedly pursuing several other star players to pair alongside Bryant such as Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal, but neither could have been a more perfect fit than Gasol. The big-man from Spain played a major role in developing team chemistry, which ultimately led to three straight NBA Finals appearances. Often times he was overlooked as second fiddle to Bryant, but Gasol never complained and he’d step up to the plate and hit a grand slam every single time. Tonight’s matchup between the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls will be a truly special one as Gasol returns to the Staples Center to face his former team for the first time. He will surely receive quite the rousing ovation, one that he wholeheartedly deserves.

Coming off a career year, Joakim Noah has struggled to duplicate the kind of productivity he exhibited last season. Constantly in and out of the lineup, Noah has yet to develop symmetry when playing with Gasol. Far too often, Noah is left wavering on the defensive end, lurking around the perimeter to cover opposing stretch fours. He is undeniably a premier talent in the NBA, but his limitations offensively seriously hinder his production. Noah is arguably the best passing center in the NBA, with Gasol directly trailing behind him. Since Gasol possesses way more post moves, the offense tends to operate through him rather than Noah. As a result, his numbers have drastically dipped (7.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.6 APG) and will continue to until he and Gasol find some cohesion in the frontcourt.

Contrarily, Gasol has sustained an elite level of basketball all season long. He’s averaging 18.3 points per game and career highs in both rebounds and blocks with 11.9 and 2.2, respectively. For the most part, Gasol has remained injury-free throughout the season, serving as the sole consistent offensive threat. When Chicago’s offensive is in a slump, Gasol is the go-to guy. This was especially the case when he tied his career-high with 46 points, in addition to 18 rebounds in a tight victory over the feisty Milwaukee Bucks a few weeks ago. Gasol was undoubtedly the biggest acquisition of the highly active 2014 offseason and will play a vital role in Chicago’s pursuit of a title.

Small forward has been an issue for the Bulls. Mike Dunleavy suffered a brutal ankle injury in early-January, forcing him to miss the team’s previous 14 games. Since then, Tom Thibodeau has experimented with various different lineups, but seems to have settled on starting second-year forward Tony Snell. Snell is the prototypical example of a Thibodeau-style Bull. He’s not exactly a gifted offensive weapon, however he’s a workhorse on defense, similar to Jimmy Butler early in his career. Snell’s stoic demeanor reflects his personal emphasis on doing the gritty work rather than the more flamboyant, flashy plays.

Butler has been the feel-good story of the season. After rejecting a fairly generous contract extension, Butler evidently made it his mission to prove he is a star — a star who deserves a maximum contract. During his first three years in the league, any offense from Butler was considered a luxury, as his defense is what made him a special player. In light of the Bulls plethora of injuries, though, Butler has shouldered much of the scoring burden too averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game, on 45.9 percent shooting en route to likely his first All-Star appearance. The increased offensive duties have barely affected Butler’s defense, as he remains an elite defender with the ability to defend three different positions.

Derrick Rose is not Derrick Rose yet. He may never be. His athleticism has declined, he’s shooting way too many three-pointers and his assist numbers are mediocre at best. Sore knees and ankles have prevented Rose from developing a rhythm with his teammates, as he’s already missed eleven games. Chicago is in a pickle with this whole situation. Rose is a beloved figure in the state of Illinois and across the country, for that matter. Sure, he’ll occasionally dominate, but not at the MVP-level he displayed prior to his original ACL tear. A stat line of 18.6 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.1 rebounds is simply not up to NBA standards for a supposed superstar point guard.

Keys To Victory:
Attack Pau Gasol: Gasol has fallen off the wagon a bit, defensively, in the waning years of his career. Noah and Taj Gibson are the defensive forces down low, so when Gasol is on the court, the Lakers must attack. His length and shot blocking ability are tremendous threats, but once Gasol is pushed back on his heels, he does not possess the lateral quickness to keep up with the more athletic big-men.

Make Rose A Jump Shooter: The paint serves as the conduit to Rose’s offense. If he recognizes an opening, he will not seize to penetrate albeit his decreased athleticism. But, if his opposition defends the paint well enough, Rose falls in love with jacking up ill advised three-pointers. A career 31.2 percent shooter, Rose is far from a marksman. To limit Rose’s offensive production, intentionally leaving him some breathing room on the perimeter is only logical.

Crash The Glass: Chicago is an outstanding rebounding team. In fact, the Bulls rank fourth in the league, pulling down 45.6 rebounds per game. Los Angeles is a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team, but ranks 29th in points per game. For such an atrocious defense, allowing easy putbacks off of offensive rebounds is unacceptable. Ed Davis, Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer must clean the boards to give the Lakers a shot at the upset.

Chicago Bulls (30-17) at Los Angeles Lakers (12-34)
7:30 PM PST January 28, 2015
Staples Cener, Los Angeles, CA
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)

Bulls Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Derrick Rose
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Tony Snell
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Joakim Noah

Key Reserves: PG: Aaron Brooks PF: Taj Gibson C: Nikola Mirotic

Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jordan Clarkson
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Ryan Kelly
PF: Jordan Hill
C: Robert Sacre


Lakers Rookie Jordan Clarkson On His Development

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