Don't include Tom Thibodeau amongst the skeptics. There have been mixed opinions about the blockbuster trade that sent reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year and early-season league leading scorer James Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston for Kevin Martin, but the Bulls head coach isn't buying that the Thunder are any less dangerous or have changed very much because of the deal.
"Not a whole lot. Harden's a great player and Martin's a great player, but that team is a lot deeper than just one guy. It's built on team play. You've got Russell Westbrook, who's an Olympian. Kevin Durant, an Olympian. So, you've got some guys who are very, very talented. Kendrick Perkins has won a championship. Serge Ibaka keeps getting better and better. He can shut down the lane as well as anybody and former Bull Thabo Sefolosha. That team is put together extremely well, they're extremely well-coached, so they're tough," Thibodeau explained after Wednesday's practice at the Berto Center. "I think it's the nature of the league and there's a lot of change, and it's how quickly you can adapt to that change and that's the challenge that everyone faces, so I think the fact that the core of their team is basically the same, I think that helps. Martin's been around for a while. He's got a lot of experience, so I think the transition has been seamless for him."
"They're deep, they can hurt you a lot of different ways. Obviously Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka. But it's a lot deeper team than just that. Their bigs are tough. Ibaka and Perkins give them a physical presence inside and they come off with Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet, so they're big and active. Collison's one of the most underrated players in the league. Of course, Eric Maynor comes off the bench also and he's healthy, and explosive. Sefolosha is a guy that can guard five positions and one of those intangible guys, just knows how to win. So, they're hard to guard, extremely well-coached. We have a great challenge for us," he continued. "The thing is about Martin, too, you can't overlook how good this guy is. The guy has the ability to get 20 points on a few shots, great ability to draw fouls, get to the free-throw line, so it's a team that's very, very deep. When you're bringing a guy like Kevin Martin off the bench, that says a lot, and a Collison and a Maynor, those guys are starters, and Thabeet has played well for them, so this team, there's not much that they're lacking and they're a young team that's gained a lot of experience. So, they're good on offense and they're very good on defense."
As for the Bulls' strategy against Oklahoma City, Thibodeau made it clear that his team will have to execute Thursday evening, regardless of the widespread knee-jerk reactions about the Thunder struggling with Harden, who leads the NBA in scoring at this early juncture of the season. The defensive guru admitted that there is no easy solution in terms of strategy when guarding the firepower of Durant and Westbrook, in particular, especially considering how the Bulls were massacred in a road loss when the two teams matched up for the only time last season.
"It's very difficult. You're not going to guard them individually. You're going to guard them collectively with your team and even that being said, any time you have to put two on the ball, you're opening up another area and great players still have the ability to score. You just have to try to make them work for your points, and we can't gift them points with foolish fouls and reckless gambles, and things of that nature. We have to stay disciplined and if they make a tough shot that's defended well, you have to have the tenacity to come back and do it again, and again and again, and you've got to try to make them play in a crowd," the coach explained. "We've got to get easy baskets, but for us, we want to be well-balanced. We want to try to get misses, rebound the ball well, get out into the open floor, get as many easy baskets as we can. We want to try to attack. They're very good at getting back, so you have to recognize they have three or four defenders back. Now, you have to flow into your secondary offense, keep the ball moving, get bodies moving. They have great length, so you can't keep the ball on one side of the floor. You have to execute, you have to screen well, you've got to make quick decisions, keep the ball moving."
While starter Luol Deng will start out with the assignment, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler could see some action guarding Durant and potentially even Westbrook. Although Butler is excited about the challenge, he also acknowledged the Thunder's star power.
"Great team with great players. We're going to have to go out and play hard, and play the Chicago, tough basketball that we know we have to do, key in on a few players. Also, when we key on those few players, they've got a lot of other players who can make shots and get to the basket, as well, so we're going to study and just going to go out, and try to get the win," he said. "Durant does a lot of different things for his team and he's a great player. He does a lot of things great--not just well--so it'll be an interesting matchup and hopefully, Chicago can come out on top."