In the past week and a half, first the Oklahoma City Thunder and most recently the Chicago Bulls have taken turns receiving thorough shellackings on their respective home courts against LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat. At this point, the Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are clearly the top two teams in the league in some order, followed by the Thunder. Being in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls fall somewhere in the top ten teams in the NBA, even without superstar Derrick Rose. A win in Oklahoma City on Sunday night would be an upset, but the match-up is certainly intriguing.
Chicago head coach and defensive mastermind Tom Thibedeau versus the vaunted Oklahoma City offensive attack means that something has to give. The Thunder gave up an easy 111 points at home to a still-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves squad on Saturday night, and allowed the Wolves to shoot 48.2% from the field. The Thunder offense is prolific enough to overcome their frequent defensive lapses against poor-to-average teams, but those lapses lead directly to losses against some of the more consistent and potent teams in the league.
The Bulls’ offense is not particularly dynamic (28th in the NBA and scoring just 92.9 points per game), but if any defense is going to have a shot at slowing down Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Co., it’s Chicago. Luol Deng and Taj Gibson have the size to at least contest Durant, and the interior defense led by Joakim Noah should be able to slow down and adequately challenge Westbrook when he gets into the paint.
Obviously, anything can happen over the course of a single game. If Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can hold Noah and Carlos Boozer in check down low and at least hold their own on the boards, the Thunder should not have too much trouble winning this game. While the Bulls do a fantastic job at holding teams to a low 3-point shooting percentage (3rd best in the NBA at 33.6%), the Thunder are excellent at creating open three point shots off of penetration by Westbrook and Durant. In fact, the Thunder shoot an NBA-high 39.2% from long range.
The Bulls are probably the best in the league at stopping penetration off of the pick-and-roll, but Westbrook does not often need a screen to get free, and begins a number of Oklahoma City’s possessions in isolation. Once by his man, Westbrook forces the defense to rotate, and the ball swings around the perimeter to an open shooter, often Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, or Kevin Martin. The Bulls’ fantastic pick-and-roll defense is less effective against a team like Oklahoma City that has an ultra-athletic point guard that can create his own offense and jump-start the whole team with his ability to get into the lane and cause the defense to collapse.
This should be a fantastic game, especially if the Thunder cooperate and allow themselves to fall into what are becoming nightly defensive lapses. The Bulls will need some of those lapses if they are to keep pace with Oklahoma City’s scoring ability, and something will eventually have to give between the Bulls’ defense and Thunder offense in what should be a tightly contested affair.