The Bulls continue their recent spate of hosting Western Conference foes Monday night against Kevin Durant and Thunder in primetime.
Winners of 5 of their 8 games thus far in March, the Bulls are still very much in play for the 3 seed in the East (which would likely allow them to avoid the Heat in the second round). This game seems to lack some of the luster that, at first glance, it might seem to have, being a matchup of two top 4 teams from each conference. Part of this is, undoubtedly, a violation of the promise of fulfillment we’ve never really gotten from the Derrick Rose/Russell Westbrook rivalry. More topically, it probably stems from the relatively poor play from the Thunder as of late. They’ve lost 6 of their last 11 and have “fallen” to a 48-18 mark, good for second place in the West. They’ve had some trouble integrating the aforementioned Westbrook into their lineup, and have recently had their wing depth tested after losing former Bull Thabo Sefolosha to injury. Kendrick Perkins has also missed extended time, which might not seem important statistically, given that he is bad, but seems to have had an effect on this team’s confidence, which is arguably just as important on a game to game basis.
That being said, the Thunder are still one of the five best teams in this league, and beating them would be a hell of a lot more of a statement than beating Houston was. The gap between Houston and OKC is much larger than the gap between OKC and the Spurs, who dismantled the Bulls earlier this month. This might not be a great game, but it should be an interesting one.
Oh, also, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. So we have those weird green jerseys to look forward to, probably.
Probable Starting Lineups
Chicago Bulls (37-29, 2nd in Central, 4th in East)
C: Joakim Noah – 7th season, 12.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists.
PF: Carlos Boozer- 12th season, 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists.
SF: Mike Dunleavy- 12th season, 11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists.
SG: Jimmy Butler- 3rd season, 12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.0 steals.
PG: Kirk Hinrich- 11th season, 9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists.
Oklahoma City Thunder (48-18, 1st in Northwest, 2nd in West)
C: Steven Adams – 1st season, 3.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.7 blocks.
PF: Serge Ibaka- 5th season, 15.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks.
SF: Kevin Durant- 7th season, 31.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists.
SG: Andre Roberson- 1st season, 1.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.5 steals.
PG: Russell Westbrook- 6th season, 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs the entire OKC frontcourt. Noah has been essentially unstoppable since the All-Star break, posting averages of 13.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.7 blocks, 1.4 steals and only 2.6 turnovers on .578 field goal and .758 free throw shooting. He hasn’t been great in *every* game, but every game he’s been great in has been a victory for this team, and his recent surge is the biggest reason this team has rocketed above the .500 mark. The Thunder’s frontcourt is headed by the somewhat unheralded Serge Ibaka, who has been a steady, consistent presence this season. Both players are de facto “finalists” for Defensive Player of the Year, but likely won’t guard one another. Steven Adams brings his ludicrous size and sort of hilarious invulnerability to elbows to a Noah fight, and his walking out alive could seal a victory for the more talented Thunder in this particular showdown.