The Lakers fly out to the Windy City today to open up a four game road trip against the Chicago Bulls tomorrow at 5:30. While the underachieving Bulls are always a tough challenge for the Lakers in the United Center, all eyes will be focused squarely on Kobe Bryant. Cue the media frenzy as Kobe will inevitably face a host of questions aimed at renewing this summer’s widespread speculation that #24 considered Chicago his preferred destination if the Lakers followed through with his trade request. With over a quarter of the season gone by with the last place Bulls reeling and the Lakers surprising, those same trade rumors have been quelled for the time being.
TUESDAY: Lakers @Chicago, 5:30 (KCAL/9 HD)
On the court, the Bulls are one of the hardest teams in the league to read at this juncture, as their 8-13 record is hardly an accurate indicator of how potent they are when at full strength. Led by Luol Deng — the piece most commonly thrown around in trade speculation between the two teams — the Bulls offer a balanced attack with Ben Gordon, Andrew Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich also averaging double figures in points.
In addition, the Bulls have won four of their past six games and are finally showing signs of ending their season-long slump. In other words, the Lakers would be wise to not take Chicago lightly, especially after manhandling them by 28 points in L.A. earlier in the season. Moreover, Coach Jackson spoke at length before last night’s game about the importance of establishing momentum to begin the road trip, making tomorrow night’s game that much more important.
THURSDAY: Lakers @Cleveland, 5:00 (KCAL/9 HD, TNT)
Like Chicago, Cleveland — last year’s Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals — has struggled mightily to open up the season. At 10-14, the Cavs lead the Bulls by only one game in the loss column after losing their last two games. Superstar LeBron James missed time a few weeks ago and his absence obviously affected the Cav’s game. However, since returning, Cleveland has still won only one of three games, likely hinting at larger problems. Regardless, the Lakers need to be careful against the Cavs as the hype surrounding the LeBron/Kobe match-up and likely feverish atmosphere inside of Quicken Loans Arena is enough to rattle any team.
FRIDAY: Lakers @Philadelphia, 4:00 (KCAL/9 HD–tape delayed until 5:30)
Kobe returns to his hometown to face the surprisingly solid 76′ers on the second half of a back-to-back. The Lakers did not fare well in their latest back-to-back game, succumbing to the Golden State Warriors by one basket last Friday in Oakland. Coach Jackson has preached several times already this season about the merits of playing well in back-to-back match-ups — a characteristic that he attaches to the elite teams in the league.
Philadelphia is led by Andre Iguodala with 18 points, followed closely by Andre Miller’s 16 points and six assists. Although the Lakers should be able to easily dispose of the Sixers, Philly has won five of six games in the past week, including quality wins over Houston and Cleveland.
SUNDAY: Lakers @New York, 9:00am (KCAL/9 HD)
New York is one of Kobe’s favorite places to play and he always seems ready to put on a show for the Madison Square Garden Crowd. Despite the early start, the Lakers should be well-rested as they have a rare off day on the road on Saturday.
As has been the case for several seasons now, the Knicks and their atrocious payroll have underachieved, even though they are led by household names such as Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury. When he was with the Blazers, Randolph always seemed to put up big numbers against the Lakers so there’s no reason to expect that he won’t come out ready to do the same on Sunday. If the Lakers fare well in the opening three games of the trip, Sunday’s contest could be a dangerous game if the L.A. shows up overconfident. The more likely scenario is the one that ends in an easy Lakers’ victory.
Predicting the Lakers’ success on the trip is somewhat difficult as the team should technically win all four games, but a more realistic expectation is probably 3-1 as we’ve seen what inspired crowds in underdog games can do to a young Lakers squad. The Lakers better enjoy the hopeful reprieve provided by the four game stint back east as they return home to face Phoenix, Utah and Boston in successive games.