Bulls looking at a tornado in Oklahoma City


Mar 31

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It’s not exactly the most salient element of Sunday’s national TV Bulls game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But both the Bulls with Joakim Noah and the Thunder with Russell Westbrook have players who mimic old West six shooters when they do something special.

It’s likely we’ll get to see them much more from Westbrook.

“They are really good. It is going to be a great test for us,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We have to be ready. We have to take care of the ball and play great defense. They have great length and they are a well balanced team. They’re a high scoring team, they play in transition. They have a lot of offensive weapons. Whenever you are facing a team like that, not only do you have to play sound defense, you’ve got to defend, rebound, keep the turnovers down, share the ball, play inside/out. That doesn’t change game to game. We are looking forward to it.”

So am I, though I cannot see any way, especially without Derrick Rose, the Bulls can beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City.

I can see plenty of ways the Bulls can beat the Miami Heat, and they have without Rose. But if there’s one team in the NBA with truly dominant talent, if not always using it to the best of its ability, it is the Thunder.

They are the highest scoring team in the league with the highest scoring duo of Kevin Durant, second to Kobe Bryant in scoring, and Westbrook. They are a good, if not great, defensive team with the league’s best shot blocker in Serge Ibaka. They are sixth in defensive field goal percentage thanks to their terrific athletes with Westbrook among the leaders in steals. They aren’t a great rebounding team, but third in defensive rebounding. And they have the league’s best reserve in James Harden, coming off the bench and averaging more than anyone who will play for the Bulls in Sunday’s game.

“They’re a very good team,” agreed Luol Deng, who’ll be asked to defend Durant and score with he and Westbrook. “They have so many weapons, big guys who are good defensively, rebound and block shots. It’s going to take a total team effort. We’re going to play hard and try to win.”

Deng then enjoyed a little laugh, remembering a few days ago the funereal view when the Bulls lost to the Denver Nuggets.

“Every game for us we’ve got to play,” Deng said. “When we play bad you (media) guys are going to kill us no matter who we play. This game is for your guys to hype up and get everyone ready. For us it’s another game to go out and play hard.”

That’s been working remarkably well for the Bulls, who with a 42-11 record have a two game overall lead on the Thunder for the league’s best record.

So this one with one game between the teams this season is also for the tiebreaker for Finals home court advantage.

Last Sunday in Oklahoma City, ABC-TV and the local Oklahoma City media advertised the game between the Heat and Thunder as a Finals preview. I was among several national writers asked by local media to comment on whether it was a Finals matchup.

Here’s what I said:

“Frankly, it doesn’t feel much like a Finals preview. Sort of a paraphrase of the Potter Stewart pornography definition of knowing it when he sees it. This doesn’t seem like one. Though, of course, it could be. Neither team has been dominant in any way, which hardly means it cannot win as evidenced Dallas last season. But Miami has been lagging back in second most of the season and even lost to Chicago without Rose. You still see James and Wade look at each other as if wondering what to do at the end of games, and the Heat has had issues with teams with size. They are hardly feared as they were expected to be. The Thunder is first, but like their games should be first by a lot. They win a lot of games at the end you can’t figure out why they weren’t up 20. The Spurs and Lakers have had all sorts of issues while the Thunder has been as healthy as any team and yet unable to produce any significant space. Plus, they continue to lose to inferior teams and get pushed to the limit by teams that have no business being in games with them, like the recent game with Minnesota. There’s a feel to regular season so called Finals previews like when the Celtics and Lakers were dominating their conferences and looking for a great opponent, the Bulls in the 90s, for example, the 76ers in the early 80s, the Lakers in the 2000s. One problem is the lockout season as last time New York rose from eighth and it’s difficult to get a handle on teams who are not dominant with this sort of schedule. The Thunder and Heat are good teams that could be in the Finals, but few would be surprised if they aren’t, though more so Miami because they were there before. It sets up more as a potentially entertaining regular season game, and that’s good in itself.”

The majority of the 15 so called experts asked did agree, however, Miami/Oklahoma City was a Finals preview.

Hardly anyone is asking me or anyone else, it seems, about Bulls/Thunder being a Finals matchup Sunday.

I guess that’s appropriate with Rose not playing. Hamilton, though, could return from his shoulder injury Sunday, though it will be the usual game time decision which, as Pistons coach Lawrence Frank chided Friday, Thibodeau says for players who are out several weeks.

The Bulls with Rose playing have had reasonable success against Oklahoma City. The teams split last season with each winning at home. Durant had 30 in what was the Bulls opener last season as the Thunder pulled away in the last few minutes by getting to the free throw line. The Bulls came back in December behind Carlos Boozer with 29 points and 12 rebounds. See, he does have big games against top teams.

The Thunder recently got back from injury former Bull Thabo Sefolosha, and with him as the regular starter they are 23-4.

Though if you were to look at the matchups, you’d also wonder how the Bulls have any chance, at least with Rose out:

Point Guard: C.J. Watson vs. Russell Westbrook. Westbrook averages more than 24 per game, fifth in the league, and is one of the game’s great athletes, a blur on the perimeter if not a pure point guard. That’s perhaps the Thunder’s biggest weakness as Westbrook and Durant tend to play isolation a lot. Westbrook leads the team in assists at 5.5 per game. Despite leading the league in scoring they don’t have anyone in the top 20 in assists. They are 28th in the league in assists while the Bulls are fourth even with Rose out so long. And the Thunder throw the ball away way too much, next to worst in the league with most turnovers. So there are some areas to exploit.

Shooting Guard: Ronnie Brewer (or Hamilton) vs. Sefolosha. Sefolosha is sort of wasted against Brewer as Sefolosha is their best defender. They’d likely play him less and play Harden more. Harden is a dynamic scorer and shooter, probably a better playmaker than Westbrook and might outscore the entire Bulls bench on his own. There’s a question how much Hamilton plays if he does (likely about 18 minutes) and whether he would start.

Small Forward: Deng vs Durant. Durant is the leader for league MVP and while Deng is having another good season even with his left wrist tear and is the Bulls best defender, Durant is an elite star whom no one stops.

Power Forward: Boozer vs Ibaka. Yes, Boozer in theory has the offensive edge. But don’t try those underhand shots. Boozer doesn’t play often against someone like Ibaka. You think blocks in the NBA and you think Dwight Howard. Ibaka is more like Bill Russell. In about 27 minutes per game, Ibaka averages more than one block per game more than Howard, who averages 11 minutes more per game. Actually, JaVale McGee is second to Ibaka and a block per game behind. Ibaka also has a nice 15 foot shot, which doesn’t get used much as Durant and Westbrook pretty much keep the ball to themselves.

Center: Joakim Noah vs Kendrick Perkins. Noah should have the edge here as Perkins is smaller, maybe 6-9. But Perkins is tough and will battle all game and will make nothing easy. He’ll snarl and sneer a lot as well.

Reserves: This normally is a Bulls strength, though it’s difficult to see how the Bulls bench with Watson and Brewer starting can match up, though John Lucas did play at Oklahoma State for whatever that is worth. Plus, the Thunder picked up playoff savvy Derek Fisher, who’ll take and make big shots. And they have the interior size in reserve unlike most teams, with Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.

Consider some of their milestones this season: Durant has scored 52. Ibaka has had 11 blocks in a game and a triple double with blocks. Westbrook has scored more than 40 in a game twice. Durant and Westbrook have scored at least 40 in a game together twice. Westbrook, Durant and Harden each scored at least 30 in a game in which Ibaka also had 20 rebounds.

But then the pressure is on the team that’s supposed to win. And if somehow you can beat them and Miami without Rose, well, there’ll have top be some rethinking about that Finals preview thing.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: