Bulls preparing for winningest team in L.A.


Nov 16

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It was the talk of the offseason in the NBA, the incredible accumulation of talent in Los Angeles. The Bulls Saturday get a look at it, yes, when they play….the Clippers?

“We have a chance,” former Bull and Clippers leading scorer Jamal Crawford was saying after Clippers practice Friday. “This is one of the best teams in the league, honestly. If you look at it, we have everything. It’s hard enough to get one superstar in this league. We have two (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin). We have guys who have played at high levels, like Chauncey (Billups), Grant (Hill, both returning from injury in December) and Lamar (Odom). We have guys who do the dirty work, like Matt Barnes.”

And in Crawford averaging 20.5 per game perhaps the most potent offensive reserve in the NBA in what is one of the better offensive machines in the NBA. If the Bulls pride themselves on defense, this likely will be their biggest test of the season given Oklahoma City had traded James Harden.

The Clippers are third in the league in scoring and first in shooting with Crawford second in shooting among guards at 51.4 percent to Kobe Bryant. They are first in steals, sixth in assists and eighth in blocks and third in point differential behind only leaders New York and Memphis.

It’s thus a team that comes at you in waves. Consider Luol Deng ranks No. 1 in the league in minutes played at 41 per game and Joakim Noah tied for second with Harden at 39.8. The Clippers don’t have a player in the top 40 in minutes played while they have 11 players averaging in double figures minutes played. And that’s with Billups and Hill not even having played yet.

It’s been an all Lakers week in Los Angeles with the almost hiring of Phil Jackson and then the eventual hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the various leaks about who wanted what and how much, Magic Johnson blasting the hiring and then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showing up Friday to have his statue unveiled.

But if there’s a championship trophy it may be on the Clippers’ side of the Staples Center.

Already this season, the 6-2 Clippers have defeated the Grizzlies, Lakers, Spurs and Heat.

“We slipped up a couple of times,” acknowledged coach Vinny Del Negro of losses to the Cavs and Warriors. “We’ve beaten some good teams and played at a pretty high level at times. But there are a lot of new faces and a lot of growing to do as a team.”

And a lot of pressure on everyone, perhaps former Bulls coach Del Negro as much as anyone.

Paul is a free agent after this season, and as Del Negro joked when he was asked whether he runs the triangle or the Princeton or some other offense that was all the rage in the Jackson talks, Del Negro said his offense is Paul.

And if Paul decides to leave as a free agent, the chance for any championships for the Clippers leaves with him. So does Paul want Phil? No, he’s not replacing Vinny. The Lakers because of Jackson having worked with so many of their players was a fit even though Jackson really had not wanted to return to coaching at 67. But for the Lakers and for this one time, sure. Jackson’s not looking for coaching jobs, and those close to him believe the door now is closed.

As for Paul, he is Rajon Rondo with a shot, second in the league in assists to Rondo while also averaging 17 points while scoring as a last resort. For now, they’re starting Willie Green at shooting guard, though Billups eventually will move in there as well.

They’re a matchup nightmare for many teams, especially the Bulls. The Bulls like to use the quicker Noah against the better perimeter inside guy, which is Griffin for the Clippers. That would leave Carlos Boozer inside against the taller and athletic DeAndre Jordan, who is much improved as he’s leading the league in shooting at over 70 percent. Jordan had back to back 20-point games last week, including against the Spurs.

It also will be difficult for Deng to help as small forward Caron Butler is among the league leaders in three point shooting at 50 percent.

And then comes a tough reserve group with improved Eric Bledsoe, Barnes and Crawford.

Crawford had a tough season at Portland last year as the team was breaking down. The Bulls looked at him in free agency, but the need for a point guard was too great with Derrick Rose out. Though Crawford has played point guard and is one of the league’s best creating off the dribble, he’s a scorer.

And in Del Negro he probably has the perfect coach for him. Del Negro gets criticized at times for a loose system. But it’s also where Crawford profits most because of his creativity. It’s pretty much how Del Negro played when he was a shooting guard regarded for the quick shot and loose defense.

“Jamal’s been consistent,” said Del Negro. “He comes in and can put up big points quick. You have to let him go. The first couple of weeks he was trying to pass, hesitating. I said, ‘Jamal, we did not bring you here for passing. If we wanted a passer we would have gotten John Stockton out of retirement. Shoot it. We run sets for you because we want you to score. Do what you do best. Don’t be someone else.’

“He takes some bad shots,” Del Negro agreed. “I get it. He also can make some bad shots. I understand that, too. But we said cut down your turnovers, play some defense. He’s been trying.”

In a lot of ways for Crawford, who’ll be difficult for the Bulls. Former backcourt mate Kirk Hinrich probably will have to defend him. Which makes Bledsoe a danger. Yes, having that sort of reserve strength is something the Bulls know about.

“I love being sixth man,” says Crawford, who previously won the annual NBA award. “When the starters come out and can rest you can extend the lead for them. I understand the importance and take pride in it. I want to be like guys like (Kevin) McHale and Manu (Ginobili), guys who have titles and were sixth men who gave a lot from the bench. I feel like I’ve carved out a niche and embrace it and this can be a special team.”

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