PORTLAND, Ore. -- Regression to the mean … or just plain regression?
That’s the question for the Bulls tonight after the Blazers sliced and diced Chicago’s normally airtight defense in a 109-103 Portland win -- the second straight defeat in which the Bulls had allowed an opponent to eclipse the century mark. LaMarcus Aldridge led the charge with a career-high 42 points, while afterward the Blazers’ Nic Batum was feeling giddy enough to label Bulls star Derrick Rose a bad defender.
To an extent, a game like this was probably inevitable. As I pointed out earlier this week, the Bulls’ opponent 2-point field-goal and free-throw percentages were well below the norm, and both of those stats were unlikely to continue tilting quite so heavily in Chicago’s favor going forward. Certainly, we can’t hold it against the Bulls that Portland made a ridiculous 37-of-40 from the line, although the huge quantity of free-throw attempts was indicative of poor defense. And the 55 percent that Portland shot on 2s included many high-difficulty deliveries from Aldridge and Andre Miller (27 points).
On the other hand, there was some clear slippage here. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was particularly upset with the transition defense, as a Portland team not exactly renowned for its running game nonetheless tallied 18 fast-break points … several of them coming after made baskets when the Bulls were caught napping. This comes on the heels of a loss to Golden State where similar mistakes were made, as the Warriors ripped Chicago for 31 fast-break points in that contest.
“Every aspect of the defense was missing,” said Thibodeau. “This is two games in a row where we put our selves in a bad position by not guarding anybody. Miller got whatever he wanted, Aldridge got whatever he wanted … we weren’t able to take anything away from them. It was an easy game for them offensively. You’re playing with fire, trying to outscore people. We can’t win like that.”
Thibodeau also had to be upset with his post defenders’ work against Aldridge, especially Carlos Boozer. Aldridge repeatedly burned them for dunks or fouls, either using his speed in transition or spinning out of post-ups for alley-oops from Miller (11 assists) in the half-court.
Predictably, Aldridge’s performance also set off a chorus of, “How can he not be in the All-Star Game?” queries from the Portland side. As much as anything, he’s a victim of bad timing -- his two best games have come in the eight days since coaches submitted their ballots, with tonight’s 42 points eclipsing a 40-point game against San Antonio eight days earlier. He became the first player since Kobe Bryant in November 2009 to top 40 points in consecutive home games.
“I don’t want to try to prove anything,” said Aldridge. “Me getting 42 tonight isn’t going to change their mind, so what is it going to do for me?”
It may have done something, actually -- moved him to the head of the injury-replacement line. Steve Nash and Zach Randolph had figured prominently in that debate, but now one presumes that if any of the 12 Western Conference players bail on the game in the next two weeks, Aldridge will be chosen as the replacement.
Nonetheless, the big takeaway from tonight was whether the Bulls’ recent malaise was an inevitable happenstance after their unusually spectacular defensive success in the first 48 games, or a sign of deeper fundamental slippage. Chicago is unlikely to face such blistering shooting from the opposition, but with difficult road games against Utah and New Orleans remaining on this trip, it behooves them to tighten up the transition D and cut down on the fouls.
And as for Rose -- who played brilliantly with 36 points and, in this viewer’s estimation, was unfairly singled out by Batum when his frontcourt was the piece often found wanting -- he’ll get immediate opportunities to burnish his defensive rep. Showdowns against Deron Williams and Chris Paul are the next two dates on the schedule.