This is unfamiliar territory.
After coming back from 23 points down to beat the Suns in Phoenix on Wednesday night, the Bulls are 3-2 on their annual circus trip of horrors. With two games remaining on the trip — tonight in Denver and tomorrow night in Sacramento — the Bulls are one win away from finishing the trip with a winning record for the first time since going 4-3 in 1997-98 .
You know…Michael Jordan’s last season with the team.
Chicago’s first shot at a winning circus trip is against the Nuggets. At 8-6, they’re a disappointing 4th in the Northwest Division, trailing the Jazz, Thunder and Trail Blazers. But they’re 5-1 at home, which includes wins over the Lakers (13-2) and Jazz (11-5).
When Denver gets the job done, it’s usually at the offensive end, where they rank 6th in PPG (104.3), 5th in Pace Factor (95.6) and 6th in Offensive Rating (109.1). Regarding the Offensive Four Factors, they rank 4th in Turnover Percentage (.127), 5th in Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt (.275), 13th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (.499) and 26th in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (.238).
Defensively, they rank 13th in Defensive Rating (106.6) and 20th in Opponents PPG (101.9). Regarding the Defensive Four Factors, they rank 10th in Opponents Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt (.229), 12th in Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage (.486), 17th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage (.729) and 28th in Opponents Turnover Percentage (.124).
Two things that stand out to me when I look at all that data.
First, the Nuggets shoot a lot of free throws…28.4 overall and 30.8 at home. Coincidentally, in their five losses, the Bulls have given up 30.0 free throw attempts per game. So Chicago has to keep from sending the Nuggets to the line, both to avoid giving up easy points and getting into foul trouble.
Second, the Nuggets are in the bottom half of the league in defensive rebounding. Meanwhile, the Bulls rank 4th in Offensive Rebound Percentage (.306). When a team is in the final stages of a long road trip, they start to lose their legs, which means missed shots. So Chicago needs to blitzkrieg the offensive boards.
Additionally, the Bulls must avoid turning the ball over. The Bulls rank 24th in Turnover Percentage (.144) and the Nuggets love to get out in transition.
It also goes without saying that the Bulls will need to contain Carmelo Anthony (25.4 PPG, 46 percent shooting, 37 percent from downtown). In Chicago’s comeback win against the Nuggets on November 8, ‘Melo had 32 points (11-for-22), 8 rebounds and 4 steals.
One potential point of vulnerability may be Chauncey Billups. He’s injured — broken nose and sprained right wrist — and having a down season: 34 percent shooting, 31 percent on threes, only 4.7 APG and his Player Efficiency Rating has dropped from 20.2 last season (and 19.0 for his career) to 13.1 this season.
And Chauncey has to face Derrick Rose.
One major concern for the Bulls may be the heavy minutes being played by Luol Deng (39.4), Rose (38.9) and Joakim Noah (38.6). At this point in the trip, fatigue might start to kick in.