Tag Archives: Chicago Bulls

The Week That Was: 23-29 October 2017

big 3This “superteam” was supposed to be 6-0 and on their way to the first 96-0 (82 + 16 playoff games) record in league history. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to leading the league in Offensive and Defensive Rating. They were supposed to be winning games by at least a margin of 20+ per game and Dakari Johnson should now have six games worth of experience under his belt.

Instead the Thunder find themselves at only 3-3. Chemistry is still an issue as they attempt to assimilate three alpha-dog scorers into a cohesive system. It is no longer just grab the ball and score, as all three have been used to throughout their careers. Now, it’s run the offense until there’s an open shot and if nothing develops, then revert back to your natural instinct of isolation dominance. All the while, there are two other players out there on the floor that can be involved in the offense also.

It’s going to take some time. We can look back at all the other recent iterations of super teams and see that there were adjustment periods for all of them. Some of those teams adjusted quickly, like the Warriors of last year and the Celtics of 2007-08. Others took at least a season to find themselves, like the 2010-11 Miami Heat. But they all eventually found success. Continue reading The Week That Was: 23-29 October 2017

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Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 66 of 82)

westbrook thunder noah bulls

  • When: Sunday, 15 March 2015 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

One of the things the trade deadline did for the Oklahoma City Thunder was give them the option to play in a variety of manners. The time where Oklahoma City’s roster was littered with one-way players has gone by the way side. In its stead, the Thunder now have a roster full of players that, while not necessarily top notch on either end of the floor, are usually able to be net-positives in their time on the floor. In that same token, if a certain player is struggling, then another is waiting in the wing to pick up the slack. That overall depth is something that has been lacking since the days of James Harden, Eric Maynor, and Daequan Cook. And even though the Thunder played a team that could possibly end up with the first pick in the next draft in their last game, that depth is the reason why the Thunder were able to survive a line-up shuffle that saw them with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.

This is the 2nd, and final, meeting of the season between these two teams. The Chicago Bulls won a thriller a week and a half ago, 108-105, on an unlikely E’Twaun Moore 3-pointer in the final seconds of the game. The Thunder wasted a 43 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists masterpiece by Russell Westbrook, as the defense could not hold on to the 7 points lead they had going into the 4th quarter.

The Opponent

gasol noah mirotic bulls

The Chicago Bulls come into this game with a 40-27 record, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference. Since they last met the Thunder, they’ve gone on to lose 4 of their next 5 games. Their problem in that span has largely been defense, as they have given up an uncharacteristic 102.2 points per game in that stretch. With Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler still sidelined, the Bulls will have to depend on their defense to win games. The patch work back-court of Aaron Brooks and Tony Snell have kept the Bulls afloat with their occasional good games, and Mike Dunleavy Jr has provided the perimeter threat the Bulls lacked when he and Doug McDermott were out with injuries earlier in the season. Up front, Joakim Noah has been a bit hobbled, but will likely play in Sunday’s game. Pau Gasol continues to have one of his better season, posting 18.4 points and 12.1 boards per game. Off the bench, rookie of the year candidate Nikola Mirotic has been a revelation of late, averaging 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds since the All-Star break.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Chicago Bulls

  • PG – Aaron Brooks
  • SG – Tony Snell
  • SF – Mike Dunleavy Jr.
  • PF – Pau Gasol
  • C – Joakim Noah

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Dion Waiters
  • PF – Mitch McGary
  • C – Enes Kanter

Three Things

1. Line-Up Changes – From now until the beginning of the game, there may be a lot of moving parts. Serge Ibaka (knee), Enes Kanter (knee), and Steven Adams (hip) all sat out practice on Saturday. Joakim Noah was extremely hobbled in their last game with a knee ailment and may be a game time decision. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of the preview, the Thunder are a lot better equipped to handle these types of situations now than they have been in the past.

2. Turnovers – More specifically, Russell Westbrook’s turnovers. Westbrook is averaging 9 turnovers per game in the last 3 games. For as great as he has been, he could be better. Westbrook’s turnovers are usually of the live-ball variety, which increase the opponent’s transition opportunities. If Westbrook could maybe cut that average down to 4, the Thunder will be able to hold on to leads and cut into deficits a lot better.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Chicago Bulls

3. Nikola Mirotic – The Thunder had no answer for Mirotic in their first meeting. Even though he didn’t shoot it great from outside, he controlled the action offensively. The Thunder bigs were afraid of his ability to make 3’s, so they flashed out everytime he got the ball on the perimeter. And when he pump-faked, they jumped. He is quickly becoming a prime-time player, and Thunder will have to find someone to keep him in check.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Chicago Bulls preview (Game 62 of 82)

Chicago Bulls v Oklahoma City Thunder

  • When: Thursday, 05 March 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: United Center, Chicago, IL

The Thunder had a whale of a fight last night from an unexpectedly game opponent. The Philadelphia 76ers don’t necessarily strike fear in the hearts of many teams in the league. But last night, the Sixers chose the Thunder to be their “NBA Finals Game 7” opponent. They shot 43% from deep with 15 makes. They took 44 free throws. They grabbed 16 offensive boards and out-rebounded the leading rebounding team by 4. They did all this, and yet, the Thunder still found a way to pull it out. The Thunder lose this game earlier in the season. It helps when a team has a peak performance Russell Westbrook on their roster. But it also helps when the depth of the team allows the back up point guard and shooting guard to be the 2nd and 3rd leading scorers on the team on a night when no starter, sans Westbrook, had double figures. The win last night will go a long way to solidifying the mindset of the Thunder moving forward. Everyone can contribute; everyone is needed.

This is the first meeting of the season between these two clubs. The Thunder swept the season series last year, winning both games by a margin of 12 points.

The Opponent

Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol

The Chicago Bulls come into the game with a 38-23 record, good for 2nd in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are singing the same song they’ve sung that last 2 seasons: injuries to key players, good defensive unit, great effort, likely to fall short in the playoffs. The Bulls have improved offensively this season, scoring 101.2 points per game, good for 11th in the league. But the story of the season is still the injuries. Derrick Rose is out 4-6 weeks with a torn meniscus. Jimmy Butler is out 3-6 weeks with a sprained elbow. Taj Gibson is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained ankle. The team is currently starting a backcourt of Aaron Brooks and Tony Snell. That should tell you a lot about the current state of the Bulls. On the other wing, veteran Mike Dunleavy has returned from his own injury and continues to provide steady play from the 3 spot. Up front, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah form one of the better front court duos in the league. The injuries have sapped a lot of the Bulls’ depth, leaving rookie Nikola Mirotic and Kirk Heinrich as the only dependable players off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Chicago Bulls

  • PG – Aaron Brooks
  • SG – Tony Snell
  • SF – Mike Dunleavy Jr.
  • PF – Pau Gasol
  • C – Joakim Noah

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Enes Kanter

3 Keys to the Game

1. Guard Play – This game will be won in the backcourt. The Thunder have a decided advantage with Westbrook, Roberson, Dion Waiters, and DJ Augustin. Brooks and Heinrich are veterans, but have their short-comings and Snell is prone to mistakes.

2. Rebounding – This is a match-up of the top two rebounding teams in the league. The 76ers staying the game with the Thunder with their offensive rebounding and 3-point shooting. Give a wounded or bad team more offensive opportunities and they will eventually make you pay. The Thunder’s big men will have their hands full with Gasol and Noah. Then, when Mirotic comes in, one of the big men will have to float out to the perimeter to keep a hand in Mirotic’s face.

USP NBA: PLAYOFFS-OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER AT LOS ANGELES LAKERS S BKN USA CA

3. Welcome back, Craig Sager – After battling cancer, Craig Sager returns back to work tonight. Can’t wait to see what suit the man will be wearing.

10 BOLD Predictions for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 season

russell westbrook thunder intro

1. Kevin Durant will play in only 48 games this year – I’m pegging December 9th as the game Durant returns from his broken foot. If recent history is a consistent teacher, then the Thunder will likely exercise the “Russell Westbrook rehabilitation” plan when Durant returns. He’ll likely be on minutes restriction and will probably sit one of the games of a back to back for the rest of the regular season.

  • Not so bold prediction – Durant will not lead the league in minutes this season.

2. The Thunder will finish as the 5th seed in the Western Conference – With injuries already stacking up, look for the Thunder to have a season similar to what the Memphis Grizzlies had last season. They struggled in the beginning of the season, going 7-6 in their first 13 games. Then Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury, and the Grizzlies went 10-13 in his absence. In total they went 17-19 in their first 36 games. After Gasol came back, the Grizzlies went 33-13 the rest of the way to grab the 8th seed at 50-32.

The Thunder have a little bit more depth (at this point, anyways) than the Grizzlies did last season, especially when you consider the Grizzlies also lost sharpshooter Quincy Pondexter in early December of that year. They should be able to weather the storm a bit better than the Grizzlies.

3. Reggie Jackson will shoot over 40% from 3-point territory this season – In the final two months of the regular season, Reggie Jackson shot 25-61 from deep. That’s good for nearly 41%. In the playoffs, where the defenses stiffen and the pressure mounts, Jackson shot 21-53 from deep, good for 39.6%. I see no reason why that would change heading into this upcoming season.

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City THunder: Game Two

4. Serge Ibaka will not win Defensive Player of the Year – The narrative is there. Last season, in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were severely exposed in the first 2 games with Ibaka sitting out with a serious calf injury. And if Ibaka were to duplicate his defensive stats from the last 3 seasons, he would win DPOY in a land slide. But I don’t think Ibaka will play enough games to win.

Since the calf injury, he played sparingly for the Spanish National Team this summer due to a hamstring issue. Then he missed 5 preseason games due to a sore ankle. And when he did play this preseason, he got a bit of a scare with a knee contusion.  Much like Westbrook and Durant, I think the last 5 seasons are starting to take their toll on Ibaka. You can only throw a 6’10 muscular frame around  with reckless abandon for so long before you gotta pay the piper. And this is the season where Ibaka will finally pay the piper. Not necessarily with a catastrophic injury, but more with the general nicks and knacks that come with age. I see Ibaka missing 15-18 games this season, which will impact his chances of winning DPOY.

5. Steven Adams will record 18 double-doubles this season – Adams needs two things to be offensively successful this season: To be on the floor and Russell Westbrook. The point guard/center duo developed a bit of chemistry this preseason. Adams averaged 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds this preseason in nearly 26 minutes. If you can increase that to 30 minutes and feature him more offensively, then this could definitely happen, especially with Durant missing so much time. The one thing holding him back will likely be time on the floor. Adams’ propensity for fouling will likely curb some of his minutes in some games.

6. Russell Westbrook will end up Top 5 in points, assists, usage, turnovers, and steals – The Russell Westbrook we saw in last season’s playoffs will be on full display at the beginning of this season. With the Thunder’s emphasis on ball movement, look for Westbrook to be the catalyst for this style of play. Also, with defenses keying in specifically on Westbrook, look for Westbrook to rack up at least 3 triple doubles in the first 20 games of the season. When Durant returns, Westbrook’s scoring will probably dip, but his assists will probably increase.

  • Not so bold prediction – Westbrook will finish 3rd in the MVP race (behind LeBron James and Chris Paul)

7. Mitch McGary will be a 2nd team All-Rookie member – When McGary returns from his injury (probably around Thanksgiving), he should continue to be the all-around post player that we saw in Summer League and in his 1 preseason game. The things McGary does aren’t things that necessarily go away when more skilled players are out there on the floor against him. Instead, with the likes of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson, etc. around him, he should be able to create more from the mid to high post. His defense will be a problem, but,really, which rookie’s defense isn’t a problem? As the team progresses towards a more skilled nucleus, McGary will eventually supplant Nick Collison as the team’s first big off the bench. Maybe not this season, but definitely next season.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Andre Roberson will make 65 3-pointers this season – Call me an optimist, but necessity is sometimes the catalyst to progress. Perimeter shooting is something Roberson has been working on this entire offseason. He’s already a great perimeter defender, but his offense is what will make him a bonafide NBA player/starter. With Durant being out and defenses keying in on Westbrook’s every move, Roberson will be receiving the Thabo Sefolosha treatment from defenses. Which will lead to him getting open looks from deep several time a game. The shots will eventually start falling and in the process, Roberson will make at least 65 3’s this season.

9. Kendrick Perkins will not be traded this season – Perkins and his $9.4 million dollar expiring contract will look enticing to rebuilding teams wanting to either get rid of salary or looking to get up the salary cap floor. But there are two specific reasons why the Thunder won’t trade Perkins this season (or ever for that matter). No. 1, the Thunder’s big man depth is suspect. When they traded Hasheem Thabeet this offseason, they traded the only other center on the team. Adams is an up-and-comer, but still tends to foul too much for his own good. Collison and Ibaka can play center, but are much more comfortable at the power forward spot. No. 2, Perkins has buyout free agent written all over him if he is traded. While many Thunder fans under appreciate what Perkins brings to the table, other teams, especially contenders (Chicago, Cleveland, LA Clippers) would much appreciate the toughness, intangibles, and information Perkins would provide.

10. The Thunder will beat the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in 6 games – Nuff said. I believe! Stormy weather (November and December) leads to rainbows and sunshine (May and June).

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

Central Divison Preview

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

lebron james varejao cavs

Last season: 33-49 (3rd in the Central Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Brendan Haywood – Obtained in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets
  • LeBron James – Free agent signing
  • James Jones – Free agent signing
  • Kevin Love – Obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Shawn Marion – Free agent signing
  • Mike Miller – Free agent signing
  • John Lucas III – Obtained in a trade with the Utah Jazz

Key Departures:

  • Anthony Bennett – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Andrew Wiggins – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Spencer Hawes – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • C.J. Miles – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Tyler Zeller – Traded to the Boston Celtics
  • Alonzo Gee – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Sergey Karasev – Traded to the Brooklyn Nets
  • Luol Deng – Signed with the Miami Heat

Season Preview – No other team in the league made as big of an offseason improvement as the Cavaliers. The signing of James combined with the acquisition of Love immediately elevated the Cavs from lottery bound team to championship contender. The additions of Miller and Jones will provide the Cavs with the floor spacing they need to maximize the talents of LeBron, Love, and Kyrie Irving, who just finished an MVP campaign with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. The one thing that can derail the Cavs, besides injuries, is the lack of experience from key players. The Cavs will be putting a lot of the responsibility on four players who have never sniffed the playoffs in their careers (Irving, Love, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson).

2014-15 will be successful if: The Cavs make it to the Finals. Winning the Finals would definitely be icing on the cake, but this team is looking to build experience for sustained future success in the next 5 seasons.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 58-24

2. Chicago Bulls

rose noah bulls

Last season: 48-34 (2nd in the Central Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Washington Wizards.

Key Additions:

  • Aaron Brooks – Free agent signing
  • Pau Gasol – Free agent signing
  • Doug McDermott – Draft (No. 11 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Nikola Mirotic – Signed Eurostash

Key Departures:

  • Carlos Boozer – Amnestied; then signed by the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Nazr Mohammed – Currently unsigned
  • D.J. Augustin – Signed with the Detroit Pistons

Season Preview – The success of the Bulls rests on the health of Derrick Rose. After basically missing the last two seasons, Rose showed some of the form that made him a league MVP 3 seasons ago during the FIBA World Cup. If Rose comes anywhere close to being that type of player, the Bulls will once again be listed as a championship contending team. The addition of Gasol and Mirotic bolsters a front line that was already one of the better ones in the league. And adding a shooter like McDermott, to bookend with Dunleavy, will make this team even more formidable if Rose returns to form. This team, with a healthy Rose, has a great balance of defense and offense that will lead them far if everything clicks.

2014-15 will be successful if: Derrick Rose remains healthy and the Bulls make it to the Finals.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 57-25

3. Detroit Pistons

pistons drummond monroe jennings caldwell pope

Last season: 29-53 (4th in the Central Divison, 11th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • D.J. Augustin – Free agent signing
  • Caron Butler – Free agent signing
  • Aaron Gray – Free agent signing
  • Jodie Meeks – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Charlie Villanueva – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Rodney Stuckey – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Chauncey Billups – Retired

Season Preview – Last season, the Pistons were an inefficient bunch that relied too much on perimeter shooting from players who weren’t weren’t great at shooting. This season, new coach (and GM) Stan Van Gundy, decided to bring in some shooters to supply that need. Meeks and Butler will provide the spacing that Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will need to operate inside. In addition, Brandon Jennings will be able to be more of a drive and dish point guard, instead of a “let it fly” point guard.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pistons make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 38-44

4. Indiana Pacers

paul george injury pacers

Last season: 56-26 (1st in the Central Divison, 1st in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • C.J. Miles – Free agent signing
  • Rodney Stuckey – Free agent signing
  • Damjan Rudez – European free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Evan Turner – Signed with the Boston Celtics
  • Lance Stephenson – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – The story of this upcoming season for the Pacers was written on August 1st, when Paul George broke both bones in his lower right leg in a freak accident during the Blue and White scrimmage for USA Basketball. With that, and the departure of Stephenson, any chance of the Pacers contending in the Eastern Conference went out of the window. Stephenson and George were the only players on the team capable of creating their own shots. This season, the Pacers will have to rely on Roy Hibbert, David West, and CJ Miles to provide any semblance of offense. Hence why I think they’ll struggle this year.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pacers make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 31-51

5. Milwaukee Bucks

parker bucks

Last season: 15-67 (5th in the Central Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Jabari Parker – Draft (No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jerryd Bayless – Free agent signing
  • Jared Dudley – Obtained in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Damien Inglis – Draft (No. 31 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Kendall Marshall – Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers

Key Departures:

  • Ramon Sessions – Unsigned
  • Ekpe Udoh – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Carlos Delfino – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Miroslav Raduljica – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers

Season Preview – Much like the Philadelphia 76ers, this season will be all about development for the young core of the Bucks. The Bucks seem to have their wings of the future in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker. This season will be about evaluating the point guard and post positions. The Bucks will win more games this season than last because Parker and Antetokounmpo will make winning plays, but the rest of the team will need to follow their lead.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Bucks’ core shows improvement in their development and they net another Top 5 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 21-61

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Chicago Bulls preview (Game 67 of 82)

durant noah bulls thunder

  • When: Monday, 17 March 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: United Center, Chicago, IL

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Oklahoma City Thunder are now 0-1 when they are missing 3 starters this season. That’s some heavy fact finding right there. The loss last night doesn’t really bother me as much as the effort does. Many teams in the NBA will have a tough night when their starting PG, SG, and C are out. But most teams don’t have the supposed depth the Thunder have. That depth, though, is laced with a bunch of young players. That can be a gift and a curse. Teams like Miami, San Antonio, and the Clippers have veteran-laden benches with players that have started and starred before. But the Thunder bench consists of Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Nick Collison, and a bunch of rookies and 2nd year players. When injuries push that pecking order up a bit, you can have nights of inconsistencies.

This will be the 2nd and final meeting of the regular season between these two teams. The Thunder won the first game in Oklahoma City 107-95. In that game, Kevin Durant had a near triple double with 32 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists, while Russell Westbrook had a double double with 20 points and 10 assists. For the Bulls, Joakim Noah led the way with 23 points and 12 boards.

The Opponent

noah gibson butler dunleavy bulls

The Bulls this season have been a microcosm of the Bulls for the past 2 seasons. No Derrick Rose, lots of defense, great coaching, and a resilient bunch. That’s the Bulls in a nutshell. After losing Derrick Rose AGAIN! in late November for the rest of the season,  the Bulls went on a bit of a rough patch, losing 11 of their next 14. But Coach Thibodeau righted the ship, and the Bulls find themselves with a 37-29 record, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference. After trading Luol Deng to the Cleveland Caveliers, the Bulls found themselves without a consistent scorer. Enter Joakim Noah. Noah has been a revelation this season as an offensive weapon; not necessarily a scorer, but more as a point center, registering 3 triple doubles. Kirk Heinrich, DJ Augustin, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. have done a good job on the perimeter, while Noah, Carols Boozer, and Taj Gibson have done their thing in the post. Their bench is a bit thin, but can produce points with Gibson and Augustin.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Chicago Bulls

  • PG – Kirk Heinrich
  • SG – Jimmy Butler
  • SF – Mike Dunleavy Jr.
  • PF – Carlos Boozer
  • C – Joakim Noah

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Turnovers – The Bulls aren’t going to score many points (93.4 points per game – 30th in the league), but they may not need to. Backed by the best defense in the league, in terms of opponents’ ppg, the Bulls ususally win close games because of their defense. One of their tenants is to defend the paint and force turnovers. The Thunder have a tendency to get a bit careless with the ball, while will create more opportunities for the Bulls on the offensive end.

butler thunder

2. The Bench – The showing in the Dallas game was atrocious, to put it nicely. But the bench has done a good job of bouncing back this season after bad performances. Here’s to a bounce back game.

3. The Duo – The Bulls don’t really have anyone that can stick with Westbrook and Durant on the offensive end. If these two do their thing, while getting others involved, it could be a difficult night for the Bulls.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 58 of 82)

westbrook durant irving thompson cavs thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

There is no way that a game in late February should feel like a must-win. But this game almost has that feel. Not necessarily for anything regarding the Thunder’s record or seeding. But more to get the bad taste of the last week out of our collective mouths. A week long All-Star break followed by losses against two top 5 teams in the next week. Thunder nation has not seen a notch in the win column in two whole weeks. Going that long between victories usually involves an offseason for the Thunder.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have an almost Washington Wizards-like relationship with the Thunder. It’s a game that the Thunder should win easily, based on record. But every time Oklahoma City plays Cleveland, it turns into a dog fight with somebody on the opposing team (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, etc) going off. This is the first meeting of the year between these two teams. The teams split the season series last season.

The Opponent

kyrie irving all star mvp cavs

Due to their streaky nature, Cleveland is an extremely difficult team to gauge. Their record currently stands at 22-36, which puts them 5 games back of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. In their last 15 games, the Cavs have lost 6 games in a row, then won 6 games in a row, and are currently on a 3 game losing streak. Some days they look like they can be righting the ship and other days they look like they should be tanking for a high lottery pick. The Cavs are led by All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving, who is currently averaging 21.2 points, 6.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. His ability to get into the paint is the key to Cleveland’s attack. On the wing, mid-season acquisition Luol Deng has yet to find his footing on this team, and his numbers have dropped since his trade from the Chicago Bulls.  Up front, Tristan Thompson has shown signs of being a double/double machine, but has had trouble with consistency. Spencer Hawes, who was recently picked up from the Philadelphia 76ers, provides a great release valve for the pick and roll attack of Irving. Cleveland’s bench depth will be impacted as Anderson Varejao, CJ Miles, Dion Waiters will all be out with injury.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Kyrie Irving
  • SG – Jarrett Jack
  • SF – Luol Deng
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Spencer Hawes

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Small ball – Spencer Hawes is a perimeter oriented center. While Steven Adams may be more mobile than Kendrick Perkins, having to guard a perimeter oriented center completely negates his strengths on the defensive end. The Thunder will probably be best served going small for most of the game and having Durant guard Hawes on the perimeter and having Ibaka guard Thompson on the inside.

durant jackson hawes thunder cavs

2. Depth – With the Cavs’ depth being decimated by injuries and this being the 2nd night of a back to back, look for the Thunder to get out in transition and try to wear the Cavaliers out. Even if Cleveland keeps it close, this could be a game where they run out of gas late in the fourth quarter.

3. Point guards – More than anything, the Thunder point guards (Westbrook, Derek Fisher, and Reggie Jackson) need to establish themselves defensively. Irving is the only player on the Cavs’ squad that can create his own shot consistently and he has beaten the Thunder in the past.

Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 25 of 82)

rose westbrook

  • When: Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The tale of Russell Westbrook is often intertwined with the tale of Derrick Rose. Both are hyperactive point guards who break down defenses by getting into the paint and causing chaos. It is in that chaos where they find most of their success. But those intertwined tales have now become cautionary tales within the past year. Both guards suffered and recovered from serious knee injuries. Both started the season. Only one is still playing.

The loss of Derrick Rose to a meniscus tear decimates any chance the Bulls had of coming out of the Eastern Conference. With that, another season (3 in a row) goes down the drain for a team that many had tabbed as a darkhorse contender. Now begins the internal struggle within the organization in choosing between rebuilding or regrouping.

This cautionary tale should remind Thunder fans of why the organization had to trade James Harden. With max contracts for Rose and Carlos Boozer, and near max contracts for Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, the devastating blow that was the ACL injury to Rose set the organization back at least a season. The meniscus tear to Rose is probably the coup de grace for this core group of Bulls players. Losing a main player is never easy for a franchise, but it is especially difficult when the team is financially handcuffed from making any moves that can help in the short term. With a similar salary cap structure to the Bulls, the Thunder decided that they couldn’t support 4 max or near max contracts plus the contract of Kendrick Perkins. The Harden trade provided the Thunder with not only salary cap relief, but also with assets to build a support system around the nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Chicago Bulls

  • PG – DJ Augustin
  • SG – Jimmy Butler
  • SF – Luol Deng
  • PF – Carlos Boozer
  • C – Joakim Noah

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Bench Play – One of the things that suffers when you have financial restraints on a team is the bench. With their inability to re-sign Nate Robinson and Marco Bellineli, the bench play for the Bulls is average at best. The Thunder may be able to pull away during those 2nd quarter / late 3rd quarter stretches when the bench is primarily playing.

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2. Russ – With injuries to Rose and Kirk Heinrich, the Bulls have DJ Augustin and Marquis Teaque to man their point guard position. Feast, Russell.

3. Rebounding – The Bulls’ only saving grace may be rebounding. The front court combo of Boozer, Noah, and Taj Gibson can gobble up rebounds on any given night. Prevent this and you prevent any second chance opportunities for the Bulls.

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

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There’s something to be said about big brothers. I never had one growing up, and, honestly, most of the people I associated with while growing up were the oldest children in their families. But in the examples that I did see while growing up, big brothers can help shape and mold younger brothers into something better than what they themselves are. As we’ve seen with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, big brothers don’t even have to be related to their younger brethren to have an impact.

Big brothers serve two purposes in life: to frustrate and to motivate. The frustration part comes from the big brother’s ability to dominate over the little brother due to being older, bigger, and wiser. The motivation part comes from the little brother wanting to be better than the big brother. The thing about this big brother/little brother dynamic is that the little brother is able to take notes on how to best his big brother, while the big brother just has to wing being a big brother.

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In a lot of ways, with all due respect to Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey, Kevin Ollie, and Desmond Mason, the best example of a big brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder has been Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. With his recent season-ending (and hopefully, not career ending) Achilles tendon tear, I was forced to evaluate Bryant’s legacy when it comes to the Thunder.

If there is one word to describe my feelings towards Bryant’s basketball ability, it’s respect. Off the court, though, Bryant is one of those people that I would try to avoid like the plague. His arrogance and A-type personality, combined with a penchant to place blame on others when things don’t go his way, would be a package that I would completely avoid, if possible, in real life. But on the court, those personality traits, and the fact that he plays for the most polarizing franchise in NBA history, make for must see TV. Bryant is a five tool player that has a lethal 6th tool: the overwhelming need to completely decimate his opponent night in and night out, year after year. Michael Jordan had this 6th tool. Larry Bird had this 6th tool. Bill Russell had this 6th tool. Russell Westbrook HAS this 6th tool.

To view Bryant as an opponent is to respect someone out of fear. Fear for what he could do against your team. Fear that he’ll conjure up some bulletin board material for his mental bulletin board, and go off on your team for no particular reason. Fear that he could miss 10 shots in a row, but the 11th shot, with the game on the line, will go in without hesitation. That’s the kind of respect that Kobe Bryant garners. And yet, it’s a fear that keeps you staring in awe. He’s the type of player that fans say, “I hate what he does to my team, but I love to watch him play.”

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Every successful up and coming team has that one hurdle they set their sights on. If you’re a team that is coming out of the dredges of the draft lottery, you mark successes in increments. First step is to be competitive on a nightly basis. Then the next step is to get into the playoffs. Then the next step is to be successful in the playoffs. You keep going until, hopefully, eventually, you win a championship. But along the way, especially in the early stages of the success journey, you always target that one team that’s been there and done that. For the Chicago Bulls in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was the Detroit Pistons. For the Orlando Magic in the mid 90’s, it was the New York Knicks. And for the Thunder, it was the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

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As fate would have it, that 2010 playoff series that pitted the No. 1 seeded Lakers vs. the No. 8 seeded Thunder was probably the best thing for the development of the Thunder. The fact that they were able to give the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the first round did wonders for the confidence of the young Thunder. But if you broke it down to its simplest form, the Thunder didn’t give the Lakers a test. They gave Kobe a test. They planted the seed in Kobe’s head that we would be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. When the crowd would chant, “Beat LA”, they were actually chanting “Beat Kobe”. Nobody feared Pau Gasol. Or Andrew Bynum. Or Derek Fisher (hehe!). We knew that Kobe had received the message. And that was both awesome and fearful (respectful) at the same time.

As the Thunder’s two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, progressed in the NBA world, they would eventually come in contact more often with Kobe Bryant. On Western Conference All-Star teams and, most importantly, the Olympics, Thunder fans can only hope that our superstars soaked up any of the psychological warfare that Bryant uses on a daily bases. Those blurbs that you hear from media members about Bryant talking trash to Durant, Westbrook, and at the time, James Harden during the Olympics, when they heard that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, is just classic mental warfare from Bryant. It’s the equivalent of how the military drops leaflets into countries they are warring with stating how their government is endangering them, the common citizen.

Kobe+Bryant

So with that, I say, thank you to Kobe Bean Bryant. He has as much a stake in the Thunder’s ascension and success as does any of the veterans that played for the team. He was the target that we went after when we wanted to be successful. Much like an older brother, he frustrated us. But he also motivated us. And we learned much from facing him and defeating him. Here’s hoping that Bryant does come back, while, realistically realizing, that the Bryant we knew, may have gone down in a heap in the Staples Center on Friday night. Whatever the future holds for Kobe, just realize that the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder was shaped, in part, by the man in the Lakers uniform that we feared and respected the most.