The Sacramento Kings are on their way to missing the playoffs for the eighth straight season, but Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls know firsthand how dangerous of a team they can be.
With a trio of 20-point scorers, improving defense and young role players finding their spots, Mike Malone’s group has the capability to explode on any given night.
Though they’ve won just 23 games and are all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the Kings had defeated Houston (twice), Miami, Portland and Dallas this season. Oh, and they also beat the Bulls by 27 points in early February.
“Isaiah Thomas off the dribble, Rudy Gay scores a number of ways and when you look at the season Cousins is having, it’s incredible,” Tom Thibodeau said. “Talking about a center that can do everything. He’s a load to deal with.”
Much of the focus will be on budding superstar DeMarcus Cousins and his ongoing feud with Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah — Noah was ejected during the Feb. 3 game after he was called for a foul on Cousins, with whom he had been butting heads with all night.
Cousins also called Dunleavy a “clown” after that game, with that beef stemming back to last season when Dunleavy was with Milwaukee. Cousins is one of the hotter heads in the league, as he leads the NBA in technical fouls (15) and is one away from an automatic suspension.
And though Malone understands there is history between Cousins and Noah and Dunleavy, he’s more focused on how his group will compete against a team that two nights ago blew out the 44-21 Rockets.
“I’m not really concerned about Mike Dunleavy. I’m concerned about the Chicago Bulls and how well they’re playing,” he said, “and the challenge that we have in this game tonight.”
The Bulls won’t be able to focus too much, either, on Cousins or else Gay might find himself beating the Bulls singlehandedly.
In his last 10 games, Gay is averaging 23.1 points on 49 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. Since being dealt to Sacramento from Toronto, Gay has turned around his season while also helping the Kings become competitive.
It’s Gay’s ability to score in a variety of ways that Thibodeau says the Bulls must combat.
“I think because of all the offensive weapons (the Kings) do have, you can’t lock into one guy and then leave the other guys open where they can really hurt you. But because of all the things he can do, there’s a lot of different ways that he can hurt you, so you have to be locked into him, not just individually but more importantly as a team,” Thibodeau said. “And if you turn your head he’s going to make you pay.”
So while the Bulls will try and stop one of the game’s better pure scorers as a team, the individual matchup will go to Jimmy Butler.
The third-year guard said at this afternoon’s shootaround that he feels as good health-wise as he has all year, and that’s helped him find a groove heading into the season’s stretch run. Butler confirmed that he’ll be guarding Gay tonight, an assignment he’s become used to every since the Bulls traded Luol Deng.
“Jimmy’s really smart, and I think each time around against somebody, he gets better and better and he understands he’s going to have a primary scorer every night,” Thibodeau said. “And when we had Luol it was a little different because we had more versatility. But now the burden is more on (Butler) and I think he’s accepted that challenge, but his approach has been really good right from the beginning. And now that he has experience he’s even better.”
As good as Butler has been, however, Thibodeau insisted that he alone wouldn’t be able to slow down Gay. For that matter, no one defender was going to slow down the NBA’s 14th highest scoring offense on his own.
“The important thing, too, is you’ve got to make these guys work for their points,” he said. “It’s very tough to guard these guys individually, and the team has to be locked into them as well.”