Mohammed ready for matchup with former team

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Mohammed ready for matchup with former team

For Nazr Mohammed, the Bulls' preseason game Tuesday night against visiting Oklahoma City, his former team, won't be a bitter reunion. However, despite not having any bad feelings toward the Thunder, don't expect him to take it easy on his old teammates.

"It's preseason, no ill will towards them, but I'm a competitor and they're competitors, and we're going to compete like two brothers in the backyard. Sometimes you can't even tell if they're really brothers," he said after Monday's practice at the Berto Center. "It's the same as I take my approach for any other game. I'm going to come out there and play hard, and be physical and I know that I expect the same from them."

The South Side Chicago native is a well-traveled veteran, having played for eight different teams in his 15-year NBA career, but one can see he has a soft spot for the young Thunder. Led by the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook -- neither of whom reportedly will play Tuesday -- Mohammed views Oklahoma City, the defending Western Conference champions, as one of the league's elite teams, even with many observers already anointing the star-studded Lakers as the best in the West.

"They're going to be a good team. They're going to be very good. They bring all the major pieces back. They're adding a guy like Eric Maynor the team's backup point guard, who was injured last season, who I'm a fan of, just from playing with him. They're going to be really tough out West," he explained. "First off, you've got to look at Kevin and 'Russ,' they're superstars in this game.

"Then, you've got James Harden, who's becoming a superstar in this game. In my mind, he's a superstar already, but I don't know how you guys feel. But you've got three legitimate superstars who can score 30 on a given night and score 30 together, and you've got unbelievable low-post play," he continued. "Kendrick Perkins with the 'D' and you've got the best shot-blocker in the league in Serge Ibaka, who can also knock down jump shots. They've got a strong bench and they can play different styles of play. They can play physical because of Kendrick's ability to play physical and then Serge. Then, you've got Nick Collison, who's my guy. Nick's a great guy off the bench and he just does everything right. So, they've got so many different pieces. They can play an up-and-down style, they can play a physical game and they can play defense, so there's really no holes in their team.

"But at the same time, I don't want to just harp on them. I feel like we can do those same things and I feel like we're a very good defensive team, so I think it's going to be a very interesting matchup."

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau agreed with his backup center's assessment of the opposition: "They're a very good team. They present a number of different challenges. We just want to keep improving every day. That's what we're striving for. They're a deep team. They have a number of guys who can go off the dribble. They're big, a shot-blocking team, so we're going to have to play well on both sides of the ball," the coach explained.

Thibodeau has been pleased with Mohammed's strong exhibition campaign thus far, but claims that he's not surprised by the 35-year-old's performance.

"I wouldn't say he's playing better because he came very highly recommended, so I was expecting a lot from him and I had spoken with a number of coaches that had him previously, and the story was the same. Every team, they said he's a great worker, totally committed to the team, keeps himself in great shape and he'll be ready. Whatever role you ask him to play, he's going to handle his role great," he said. "You can't play as long as he has played without every coach saying the same thing and also from observing, I know how I felt when he was on the floor when I was coaching against him. I'm very pleased with his conditioning, with his approach, veteran leadership, great teammate. I think he's added a lot to our team."

Mohammed has been similarly impressed with Thibodeau's operation and went as far to compare the coach, only in his third season as an NBA head coach, to the likes of Hall of Famer Larry Brown and the current dean of NBA head coaches, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, both of whom previously coached him earlier in his career.

"It's definitely an intense training camp. You've got to come in focused and ready to work. We have a fast-paced camp. Coach Larry Brown who coached the Bobcats when Mohammed played in Charlotte was kind of similar; he wants it intense. But we have a fast-paced camp with transition from drill to drill pretty fast. It's pretty consistent, what he asks of every player. It's not like, 'You, I need this. You, I need that.' He wants the same from everybody, which is good and I've got to give credit to guys. Everybody came in shape and everybody came in ready to go, so we haven't had too many 'getting on the line,' running, things like that. Guys are ready to go," he said. "Thibodeau is very similar to Popovich because they have high expectations for the players. They ask for you to work extremely hard and they ask for you to be focused for a long period of time. Mental lapses just aren't accepted, but a guy like me, I like that because I like order. I like to know when I'm wrong and when I'm right, so when you have order, it's easier for guys like me, but everybody's different.

"Training camp is very important, especially when you're going to a new team. There's a lot of terminology thrown at you. New guys, you're trying to get a feel of what they can do and they're trying to get a feel for what you can do because even though you've been in the league and have seen guys on other teams, it's night and day when a guy's your teammate and you kind of inspect his game and see what kind of worker he is," he continued. "It's the most mentally demanding training camp I've been to. As far as physically, it's up there, but once it gets hard, it's hard. There's no 'extra hard'...because you're asked to stay sharp, at a high level, for a long period of time and mentally, not everybody can do that, but I know I'm capable because I'm doing it now. But it's not for everybody to try to do and we've got some great guys who have been doing a great job at it.

"From our standpoint, we know that we can beat any team in this league, but we also know that if we don't come and play the right way, we can also be beat by any team in this league, so we're focused on what Coach wants us to do and we understand where it's at."

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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