Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN

Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN
October 22, 2012, 8:17 pm
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The Chicago Bulls welcome last year's Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the United Center tonight as the two teams wind down their respective preseason schedules. Tip-off is 7 p.m., and you can catch all the action live on Comcast SportsNet.
The Bulls missed out on the chance to play against 2012 All-Star Kevin Love in their 92-81 win over the Timberwolves last Friday, and they won't be able to square off against the best young tandem in the NBA, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, either, as both will sit out tonight's exhibition. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said it's just a day of rest for the pair, as Oklahoma City will travel home tomorrow to close out their preseason campaign at home against the Mavericks.
Another budding star in the Oklahoma City lineup is shooting guard James Harden. The 23-year-old reigning Sixth Man of the Year is dealing with a groin injury that has held him out of three preseason contests already, although the Thunder do not feel it will hinder him once the season starts.
Harden most recently competed on the USA National Team at the 2012 Olympics, along with Westbrook and Durant. As part of Team USA's practice routine in Las Vegas, the trio went up against the USA Select Team, which included Bulls' power forward Taj Gibson.
Chicago's improving big man enjoyed his experience and got a feel for just how good he can be as an NBA forward. But Gibson and Harden have more in common than just putting on the Red, White and Blue this past summer. Both are impending restricted free agents, and must sign contract extensions by Oct. 31 to avoid hitting the open market.
Harden, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and Gibson, the No. 26 overall pick, are reportedly working toward signing before the deadline.
The Thunder are in a tight salary cap crunch after signing Durant (86 million), Westbrook (80 million) and forward Serge Ibaka (48 million) to long-term deals the last two seasons.
The Bulls are also dealing with some financial uncertainty. Gar Forman said earlier this offseason that extending Gibson was a priority, but Carlos Boozer's contract and Luol Deng's uncertain future fog up part of the Bulls' salary cap. Still, CSN Bulls Insider Aggrey Sam expects an extension to be completed before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Gibson will be able to make his case for a payday tonight, going up against one of the better defensive frontcourts in the NBA. Along with Ibaka, the league's leading shot blocker a year ago, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins will make life difficult for Gibson, Boozer and Joakim Noah in the middle. Last year the Bulls lost to the Thunder in their only matchup, with Gibson (10 points, 11 rebounds) double-doubling in the loss.
Gibson has averaged 8.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in 23.4 minutes this preseason, but is shooting just 36.2 percent from the field. He's made up for that on the defensive end, where a more aggressive Gibson has blocked 11 shots and made five steals in five games.
The Thunder have struggled defensively in the preseason, allowing 100.0 points per game and opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field. The Bulls have averaged 88.4 points in their five preseason games, the third lowest mark in the NBA. That average should improve against a Thunder team resting two of its five top players.
In order to do that, the Bulls will need more consistent scoring from the reserves. Nate Robinson, Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli have combined to shoot 45-of-142 in the preseason (31.7 percent). While Rip Hamilton (51.1 percent) and Nazr Mohammed (51.4 percent) have played well, the Bulls will rely more on their bench this year without Rose to make up that scoring. A solid showing tonight would be a welcome sight.