Bulls getting ready for a Thunder storm


Nov 7

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It’s a rematch Thursday for the Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only this time, unfortunately for the Bulls, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are planning to play.

It was just over two weeks ago in the preseason that the Bulls managed a 94-89 win over the defending Western Conference champions who were resting their two main stars. They may have thought Dragan Tarlac and Eddie Robinson were starting.

So there was some talk of the fate of James Harden, who had a brutal two of 17 shooting game against the Bulls and who most believed would finish out the season with the Thunder and become a free agent. But unlike the Cavs, Raptors and Magic with top players — and even as the favorite again in the West despite the Lakers’ additions — the Thunder surprised most and traded Harden to the Houston Rockets in the biggest story of the young season.

Kevin DurantSo then the Thunder lost two of its first three games while Harden set scoring records for joining a new team and gave beard growing tips to Omer Asik.

“I told the guys, ‘If we were a college team, the University of Thunder, and we went to the Maui Classic, I would be very concerned (at 1-2),” coach Scott Brooks joked.

The Thunder then blew out Toronto Tuesday and arrive in the United Center Thursday for the national TNT game as not only a team in self reflection but as the first real test for the Bulls without Derrick Rose.

“They’re deep,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who delights in praising all opponents, though this really is a very good one. “They can hurt you a lot of different ways. There’s Westbrook, Durant, (Serge) Ibaka. It’s a lot deeper team than just them. Their bigs, Ibaka and (Kendrick) Perkins give them a physical presence inside. And they have (backups Nick) Collison, who is one of the most underrated players in the league, and (Hasheem) Thabeet. They’re big and active. (Eric) Maynor is healthy and explosive and (Thabo) Sefolosha is a guy who can guard five positions. He’s one of those guys who knows how to win. They are hard to guard, well coached. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

It really is for obvious reasons given the high regard for the Thunder even without Harden. After all, they received shooting guard Kevin Martin in the deal with the Rockets and he is averaging 19.3 points on 51 percent shooting and more than 60 percent on threes.

And Thibodeau didn’t even mention him.

But someone better get that guy.

Which is where the questions begin again for the Bulls, as they continually will present themselves with Rose out.

The Bulls are 3-1, and nothing but that blowout win in Cleveland has been very comfortable.

The reason has been the team’s inability to control shooting guards.

Tyreke Evans went off for a team high 21 points on opening night and Tuesday Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 28. Though Austin Rivers only had nine for New Orleans, guards Roger Mason and point guard Greivis Vasquez hit big shots in the second half that enabled the Hornets to steal that win in the United Center.

In order to overcome the Magic and a seven-point third quarter deficit, Thibodeau went with little used Jimmy Butler at shooting guard to help control Afflalo and moreso J.J. Redick. The Magic then shot 37 percent in the fourth quarter against a Bulls defensive group with Butler and Taj Gibson.

Thibodeau likes to balance his lineups with scoring, so he played Nate Robinson much of the fourth quarter for the second consecutive game instead of Kirk Hinrich.

But that would be a difficult lineup against the Thunder with Westbrook at point guard. You can stay with Martin as he doesn’t attack the basket much. But his range spreads the court and opens lanes for Westbrook.

It’s been another issue for the Bulls as especially with Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Robinson, they’ve been inconsistent limiting penetration. The result has been the interior players having to step up and often out of position for rebounding. The Bulls have made up for it with terrific hustle, especially from Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. Noah leads the team in rebounding at 8.8 followed by Deng at 8.3.

Given Martin isn’t an attacking player, the Bulls should be able to defend him with Hamilton and Belinelli, and then perhaps Butler later in the game again. I might give Butler a look even on Westbrook given Butler’s aggressive nature and athleticism.

Carlos BoozerAs Thibodeau mentioned, size will be an issue, though Thabeet could be the x-factor. He was very good in that preseason game with 10 rebounds, five offensive. He seems much stronger than when he first came into the league as a No. 2 overall draft pick bust, and had 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks in the Thunder’s Tuesday win.

The Bulls would figure to do best — as most do — against the lumbering Perkins.

Which leaves Durant. Oh, yeah, him.

The reigning three-time league scoring champion is averaging about 10 points below his recent scoring averages as he’s been both more playmaker and rebounder.

“This is probably the first year I’m passing the ball a little bit better, getting more assists, handling the ball a little bit more,” Durant told the Oklahoman newspaper. “I’ve just got to find the balance between knowing when to go score the ball or knowing when to make the right pass.”

The reason for that is the loss of Harden.

Yes, Martin is a good scoring replacement. But Harden is probably a better point guard than Westbrook for handing the ball and passing. The Thunder had some unusual statistics last season for being such a good team. They were last in the league in assists and forced turnovers. But they made up for it with the brilliance of three great offensive players, No. 3 overall in shooting, No. 1 in free throw shooting and No. 1 in blocks. They’d often go to Harden late in games and put Westbrook off the ball, where he could make fewer mistakes.

With Harden gone, Westbrook has messed up the end of both losses, games the Thunder could have won. It’s resulted in Durant being put in position to make more plays. And while Durant is so talented that he can, it’s taken away from his scoring. He is averaging “just” 20.8 per game. Still, he is the most difficult defensive assignment for Deng along with LeBron James.

So, yes, the Thunder miss Harden.

But the big reason they didn’t resign Harden was they chose to resign Ibaka, who led the league in blocks last season. He’s an explosive jumper whom the Bulls had difficulty with in that preseason game as he had 24 points and eight rebounds. The Thunder is going more to him this season for offense and Ibaka is averaging 12.2 points. So the Bulls probably will put Noah on him along with Gibson.

Noah has been perhaps the most impressive player on the Bulls thus far, leading the team in minutes played, scoring, rebounding, blocks and tied with Hinrich for tops in steals.

“My offense has presented itself,” said Noah, whose famous counterclockwise tornado ball has been smooth this season. “I felt like I was open, so I took the shots. I’m (also) comfortable passing. It depends on the situation, but I’ve been comfortable offensively.”

But it’s the other guys, especially the perimeter players, for the Bulls whom Thibodeau would like to see more comfortable. While Oklahoma City is shooting more than 40 percent on threes, the Bulls have found themselves fighting uphill in all the games other than Cleveland in shooting 26 percent on threes.

So it’s going to be another game for Thibodeau of matchups and circumstances and situations, a Rubik’s Cube of combinations that will make this season a puzzle of challenges. The biggest so far comes Thursday.

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