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."