Tom Thibodeau and Brian Shaw both understand how much injuries to key players can set a team back. Luckily, both head coaches’ rosters are complete with some of the most versatile and energetic big men in the NBA. Those frontcourts will square off against each other Friday night in a game that likely will be decided in the paint.
Both pegged as potential contenders in their respective conferences, the Bulls and Nuggets were stricken by injury and roster overturn in the season’s first half. For the Bulls, Derrick Rose’s torn meniscus and Luol Deng’s departure meant relying on their trio of frontcourt members. Joakim Noah (11.8 points, 11.4 rebounds) and Taj Gibson (12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds) both responded to the challenge and are in the midst of career years, while Carlos Boozer (14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds) has been a constant inside.
And of late, the Nuggets have been forced to rely on their bigs, too, in the wake of injuries to Ty Lawson (ribs) and Nate Robinson (torn ACL). They’ve also been without small forward Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL last season and won’t return until next year.
Luckily, the first-year head coach Shaw has a plethora of forwards and centers at his disposal. The trio of Kenneth Faried (11.0 points, 7.5 rebounds), J.J. Hickson (11.7 points, 9.4 rebounds) and Timofey Mozgov (8.6 points, 5.8 rebounds) has provided stability inside for a Nuggets team that also has been without JaVale McGee, who played in five games before suffering a season-ending stress fracture in his left leg, since early November.
The consistency seen from those three — Denver is the only team in the NBA with three players averaging at least 7.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and is shooting better than 50 percent from the field — has meant a fight inside for opposing teams, something Thibodeau understands well.
“The activity, speed, quickness, obviously you’re dealing with a lot of quickness there (with Faried and Hickson) and then Mozgov comes in and gives them a different look,” Thibodeau said. “And they have a lot of versatility to the lineup. You have to be ready for all that. Their bigs seem to have good chemistry with each other, we have to be ready for that.”
Faried seems to have put a rough month of play behind him, averaging 23.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in 37 minutes his last two games. As the most established scorer of the three, Shaw said his aggressiveness must continue against a stingy Bulls defense.
“I want to see Kenneth do that all the time. Not just a Milwaukee Bucks team that’s kind of down and out right now,” Shaw said, “I want to see him do that again tonight against the Chicago Bulls.”
Faried will be key, but Shaw also noted that his entire frontcourt will need to do a better job containing the Bulls inside.
These two teams met in late November, with the Nuggets allowing 22 offensive rebounds to a Bulls team that shot just 39 percent from the field. And though the Nuggets came away with a 97-87 victory, Shaw knows that won’t be the case a second time around.
“Well they have to brace for exactly that: physical play. They have size and strength inside with Noah and Boozer starting out, Taj Gibson when he comes in the game as well," Shaw said. “(Friday), if we don’t put bodies on Boozer and Noah and Gibson ... it’ll be a long night for us.”