The visiting OKC Thunder went head-to-head with the Chicago Bulls in a matchup between elite teams in the Association, featuring a pair of rookie NBA head coaches, star point guards, and standout bigs. It was definitely a game to watch, with the feeling of a playoff environment, as curiosity filled the arena to see how these elite teams with some unknowns were going to perform.
I am a bigger fan of Billy Donovan, former coach of the University of Florida, than I am of Fred Hoiberg, who made the jump from Iowa State to the Windy City. Donovan leaves one college town to coach the best dynamic duo in the game, and Oklahoma City is pretty much a college town with a pro hoop team. Hoiberg also inherits an upper echelon team with high expectations, returning to a team that he once played for.
Pau Gasol led the league in double-doubles last season. The veteran big man is very familiar with the man he faced on Thursday night, Serge Ibaka, as both suit up for Spain together when the Olympics come around. Ibaka made a name for himself as a shot blocker, but you can’t strictly call him a defensive player since he’s improved his perimeter stroke.
Not to push a big interior talent like Enes Kanter to the side, who OKC signed to an extension in the offseason, because that guy poses an offensive mismatch when he sets a screen and rolls to the hoop. That’s a serious weapon coming off the pine for the Thunder. His counterpart Joakim Noah, also coming off the bench this season, is maximizing his energy and the intangibles he brings to the floor and boy did he throw a beautiful alley-oop to Taj Gibson off a spin to the rim.
As far as the popular matchup, that would come down to former MVP Derrick Rose, who is looking for his legs and rhythm after various injuries, squaring off with a MVP candidate from last season, Russell Westbrook. These explosive guards are two of the best, despite the chatter of Rose losing a step with a struggling start to the season. Westbrook was just given a compliment by teammate Kevin Durant, about being the best player on the Thunder, which is a sentiment I’ve been vocal about for a few years now. Westbrook is ferocious because he attacks the paint relentlessly, but the other side of the ball is another aspect of his game that separates him from most guards. I’ve been a Rose supporter because I understand how it is to play the game through injuries, and bouncing back form them.
Both went off and had their moments, and stretches of dominance. It was great to see, although it did look like they played some matador defense against each other. Hey, that happens when you’re playing against a guy that’s just as good as you are. You can control the ball and try to make plays all you want, but you also have to defend the game and fatigue absolutely plays a factor, as well as help defense but tonight wasn’t enough to contain either one. They were fun to watch.
I was also excited to see another former MVP in Durant, go at it with the league’s most improved player, Jimmy Butler. In fact, Chicago players, media, and fans are beginning to believe that Butler is the alpha dog for the Bulls. Rather than spout off great stat lines that you can look at yourself, I simply want to share the eye test with you because it was that type of a game. The two stats telling stats in terms of points: (1) Rose scored a dozen in the 4th, and (2) Rose/Butler edged Westbrook/Durant 55-53 in scoring. To be honest, the stars put up good numbers while most of the other guys don’t necessarily pop out on the stat sheet.
Durant made tough fade away after tough fadeaway. Butler wasn’t shy either, as he did it all inside and out, all while defending Durant and vice versa. I bring all of this up to say, that when it comes to the NBA I watch games with a playoff series in mind. There are a lot of things that a good playoff team can get away doing in the regular season to get by and win games. The postseason is a different animal when the contenders clash, which immediately poses a problem when I watch OKC’s offense.
For instance, how is Dion Waiters only scoring 4 points on 3 attempts in 27 minutes? If you watched the game, you heard Charles Barkley repeatedly share his concerns about the Thunder playing isolation. That’s been their problem since they entered playoff contention several years back, and so far it doesn’t look like a new head coach has come up with a solution. Then again, perhaps they’re playing the long game, knowing that they’re likely to win 50+ games with a vanilla playing style. If that truly is the case, the last month or two of the season is when you want everyone involved and playing their best basketball. Right now, expecting Westbrook and Durant to physically exert themselves to the point of exhaustion, is asking the world of them considering that they will have to defend star players in a series too.
Chicago is interesting because they really do need a healthy Rose and Noah, something that they haven’t had at the same time for the past few seasons. Rose and Butler form a top-2 backcourt in the league, the other residing in Golden State, of course. This team is big inside with Noah, Gasol, and Gibson who was once a sixth man of the year candidate. They will definitely get a boost when Mike Dunleavy gets healthy to rotate with Doug McDermott to spread the floor with their shooting.
Clearly, the Bulls have a simpler path to actually reach The Finals, as Cleveland is the heavy favorite with some other teams that are good, but not great. Atlanta has the formula to remain relevant. Toronto is off to a 5-0 start, but they were knocked out in the first round by the Wizards, and that’s a team that has regressed on paper. Indiana could be a tough out with Paul George and Monta Ellis, but they’ve retooled the front line and moved on from a trio of veterans. Miami is certainly a team to be reckoned with as they’ve improved, but they’re as much of an unknown as any team in the east.
I like the Bulls’ chances of winning multiple series, and possibly upsetting the Cavaliers, more than OKC running through the west. Not just because of the competition, I just believe the Bulls are a little ahead of the Thunder in terms of maturation and getting results. OKC is going to be in just about every playoff game, but their defense has extensive lulls and the offense gets far to stagnant and simple to defend. Durant won’t made enough fade aways.
They will be awesome teams to follow through the 2015-16 season. It will be interesting to see how the leaders develop trust in their teammates, and how the rookie coaches adapt to hot streaks, cold streaks, the rotations, and evolve their schemes to elevate their team to those high expectations.