Bulls (15-11, 4-6 road) vs. Thunder (20-9, 13-3 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 1:30 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 108.5 (2nd), Bulls – 98.4 (27th)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 98.8 (6th), Bulls 97.8 (3rd)
As we head towards another Christmas game, its good to sometimes sit back and appreciate the fact that Oklahoma City is actually good enough to be featured on the Christmas day slate. This will be the 6th year in a row the Thunder will play on December 25th. It’s getting to the point where its becoming a holiday tradition, while at the same time getting to the point where we, as fans, can almost start to take it for granted.
To put it into perspective, the Atlanta Hawks last played a Christmas game in 1989. The Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats have never played a Christmas game in franchise history, dating back to 1988. Ditto for fans of the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Milwaukee Bucks last played a Christmas game in 1977. If you are a big market team (New York, Miami, LA, Chicago), you are almost guaranteed a spot on the Christmas Day showcase, regardless of record. But as a small market team, it’s time to appreciate the fact that the Thunder are good enough and entertaining enough to play on December 25th.
As for this current Thunder team, they are currently rolling. They’ve won 13 of their last 16 games, with the losses coming to 3 of the top four Eastern Conference playoff teams on the road. The starting 5 is one of the best 5-man groups in the league, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are back to playing like two of the top 5 best players in the league. Some of the team’s success lately may also be due to the more consistent play of Serge Ibaka, who in the last ten games, has averaged nearly 15 points per game on 54% shooting from the field, while also grabbing 7 boards and blocking nearly 2 shots. When Ibaka has hit mid-range and 3-point shot going, the Thunder are nearly impossible to stop on the offensive end.
But where the Thunder have really improved is on the defensive end of the floor. Over these last 16 games, they’ve only allowed three of the teams in that stretch to score over 100 points. In today’s NBA, that’s quite the accomplishment. They are third in the league in opponent FG% at 42.6% from the field. They are 2nd in the league in rebounds allowed, at just under 40 per game. They are third in the NBA in assists allowed, at 19.7 per game. What this means is that they are making teams play in isolation, instead of allowing them to run their offense and get assisted field goals. Surprisingly, in most defensive statistics, the Thunder are right in line with the San Antonio Spurs, who have the No. 1 defense in the league.
This is the 2nd meeting of the season between the Bulls and Thunder. The Bulls won the first meeting 104-98, in a game that saw a resurgent Derrick Rose score 12 of his 29 points in the 4th quarter to hold off a Thunder rally that saw them tie the score at 90 with under 5 minutes to go in the game. Rose had an answer for every Thunder charge, and eventually had enough answers to pull out a victory for the Bulls in the United Center.The Opponent
The Bulls come into the game with a 15-11 record, having lost their last 3 games. After a promising start to the season that saw them have the conference lead for a few days, the Bulls have seemingly imploded under the direction of new head coach Fred Hoiberg. There are questions about locker room chemistry and leadership issues. All the rumors during the offseason about a supposed feud between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler seem to be alive and well. At the same time, Hoiberg seems to be nearing the point where he may start to bring in his own people instead of depending on the leaders from the previous regime.
Guys like Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, seem to be losing some of their clout on the team, as they continue to age and their skills continue to erode. The Doug McDermott experiment seems to be progressing, but he reminds me a lot of Anthony Morrow, in that he can bring offensive firepower to the team, but can also be a huge liability on the defensive end. Up front, Pau Gasol seems to be half a step slower from last season and Nikola Mirotic seems to have forgotten how to shoot. Derrick Rose is still struggling to find his footing under Hoiberg. Butler is the star on the team, but if he is your No. 1 guy, is your team really that good?3 Big Things
The Bulls come into this game a wounded animal. Not necessarily wounded by injuries. But wounded by where they currently stand in the league. This was a prideful bunch under Tom Thibodeau that battled tooth and nail, regardless of whoever was on the active roster. Now, they seem to be lost and searching for an identity. With that said, Chicago can still clamp down on the defensive end and spark just enough offense to beat anyone in the league. If they think they can turn their season around with a victory against the surging Thunder in Oklahoma City, they will likely set all their differences aside and try to steal this game.
2. Attack the Paint
With Joakim Noah gone for the next 2 weeks with a sprained shoulder, the Bulls’ only interior defender is Pau Gasol. Gasol averages 2.2 blocks per game. The next closest person is Jimmy Butler at 0.88 blocks per game. Now don’t get me wrong. Chicago is a great defensive team and they do a lot on the perimeter to prevent entrance into the lane. But with Westbrook and Durant working the driving lanes and Ibaka on a tear from the mid-range, the paint may be a lot more open this game than it was in the first meeting of the season.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan seems to be learning how to stagger Westbrook and Durant’s minutes in order to have them on the floor at all times during the game. That is a huge must as the bench is struggling big time in the last few games. In the last game, you know the one the Thunder won by 35, no one from the all bench lineup (Waiters, Collison, Augustin, Kanter, and Morrow) posted a positive +/-. Let that sink in for a minute. In a game where the Thunder won by 35, the top 5 players off the bench had negative +/-‘s. That is not a formula for success.Slump-buster (The opposing player most likely to either break out of a slump or have a career game):
Nikola Mirotic – After a good rookie season that saw Mirotic score 10 points on nearly 32% shooting from 3-point territory, a lot more was expected of him coming into this season. Hoiberg had him start at PF at the beginning of the season to stretch the floor, but Mirotic has struggled in that role. He is still scoring 10.5 points per game on 33.6% from 3-point territory, but is only shooting 38% from the field overall. His impact has not been felt as much this season as it was last season as a stretch big off the bench.
Merry Christmas DT. May your bellies be full and your Amazon wishlist be fulfilled.