OKLAHOMA CITY—After getting beaten down by the defending-champion Heat at home Thursday, the Bulls redeemed themselves with a 30-point victory Friday in Charlotte.
Following a day off after the back-to-back games, they’ll take on the other 2012 NBA finalist, the Thunder, who present many of the same problems as Miami.
In the superstar tandem of three-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and explosive All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City has perhaps the game’s most dynamic duo, but with athletic shot-blocking power forward Serge Ibaka emerging as more of an offensive threat, sixth man Kevin Martin adding a perimeter scoring option off the bench—though he lacks the playmaking and slashing ability of the departed James Harden, now an elite player in Houston—and defensive-minded role players like center Kendrick Perkins and two former Bulls swingmen Thabo Sefolosha and Ronnie Brewer, the latter of whom was acquired from New York at Thursday’s trade deadline, the Thunder also have depth.
“They’re a lot more than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That’s a great team. That’s a team that was in the Finals last year. They’re having a terrific year again this year,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They’ve got a lot of different weapons. They’ve got size, they’ve got quickness. So, we’re going to have to be ready.”
Oklahoma City is still a young team, but having been through playoff battles early in their careers, Westbrook, Durant and their teammates are also experienced, Thibodeau cited.
“When you look at Durant and Westbrook, they’ve been in a lot big games now, so the way they respond to different things. Ibaka is a guy that’s very, very talented and Martin gives them another guy you have to have great body position against,” he explained. “Because you have to commit so much of your defense, now when the ball comes out, your close-outs, your protection, it’s that second guy that creates so much havoc and they play off each other so well. Both guys are very underrated in terms of their playmaking. It’s not only their scoring; their ability to read defenses and plays. So, you have to have the ability to finish your defense and they have very good offensive rebounders.”
The Bulls’ defense and ball security Sunday will be key, as they hope to take the approach of Friday, when they committed a season-low six turnovers against the Bobcats, as opposed to Thursday, when they had a season-high 27 miscues, allowing the Heat to get out in transition, something the athletic Thunder also thrive on.
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“Having low turnovers definitely gives us a chance to win the game. Turning the ball over at a high rate, it gives them easy opportunities to get out in transition and get easy baskets. We feel like when our defense is set, we’re pretty good,” All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “They spread the court a lot more with Kevin Martin. Thabo Sefolosha’s been shooting the ball great for them. They have very solid bigs in Serge Ibaka and ‘Perk,’ so they hold the paint down. They’re one of the best teams in the West, so it’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”
Rip Hamilton added: “They’re a good team, man. They play well together, they’ve got another year of experience, they do a great job of getting the ball in transition and making plays, and Kevin Durant, he speaks for himself.”
All-Star Luol Deng is known as one of the league’s top individual defenders, but he understands that it will take team defense to slow down Durant.
“He’s one of the best scorers and I think it’s going to be a challenge to stop him as a team,” he explained. “He scores in a lot of different ways.”
If Kirk Hinrich, who has missed the team’s last two games after re-aggravating a previous right-elbow injury, doesn’t suit up, as expected, the Bulls will have an even tougher task, as Westbrook has a significant size advantage over backup point guard Nate Robinson.
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Still, the Bulls, who have a bitter taste in their mouths after not only the Thunder’s early-season win in Chicago, but getting thumped in Oklahoma City last season, are primed for the matchup.
“We felt like we battled so hard the last time we played, but that was a while ago. They’re a new team, got a lot of new players, especially with Ronnie Brewer going there. We have to just play our game. We have to have a great practice to get a good win and try to push it to the limit. We’re trying to start the second half on the right foot. So far, it was shaky losing to the Heat, but we bounced back [Friday]. We have to keep pushing,” Taj Gibson explained. “You can’t ever just forget about stuff like [last season’s loss]. We went in lackadaisical. They just jumped on us from the gate. That’s the way a good team always responds, but we have to just come back and respond well. Even though we got a win tonight, we just can’t be too happy with this. We’ve got to keep striving for better, strive for more.”
Brewer, who didn’t play in the Thunder’s home win Friday over Minnesota, could make his debut with his new team against his former squad Sunday.
If he does play, the Bulls hope they can make their former teammate—who fell out of the Knicks’ rotation after being a starter earlier in the campaign—begin the latest phase of his career on a bad note.