After opening the season with a series of cupcakes, the Bulls square off tonight on national TV against the slightly reshuffled OKC Thunder. If, like me, you think that "statement games" are a load of Benny's courtapples, or if you're convinced that there are no "big games" in November, here are a couple of reasons to skip Burn Notice and tune in anyway:
1. #Fingagunz. Two 20+ point games, two double doubles, eight steals and ten blocks in four games, plenty of attitude and a long-range Tornado (I'm calling his long 2 from Tuesday an F4 - a 3-pointer would be an F5, and if he ever manages a half-court tornado, then we're going with F6 - the "Unbelievable Tornado", according to the Fujita Scale). Anyone who watched the beginning of the 2010-11 season knows deep down that Joakim Noah is an allstar; we've been waiting for Plantar Fasciitis and Big Contract-itis to go into remission and Beastmode to reemerge for two years now. It's happening - the only question is whether or not Thibs will ride him into the ground before Derrick returns. That may not be a factor tonight, since NAZR REVENGE GAME.
2. Jimmy Time! (*cue gags*) The Bulls have mostly played excellent defense so far, but as mentioned, it's been against cupcakes, including several teams with exceptionally bad bench units. The new leader of OKC's second unit, Kevin Martin, is a starter on almost any other team, and while Thibs may want to use Belinelli to go at him on the defensive end, I think it's likely we'll see plenty of Blindside out there at the 2 trying to lock him down. It's something to watch for, anyway.
3. Every win counts right now in the East. Paul Flannery's blurb yesterday was the first time I thought collectively about all the injuries to top Eastern Conference talent. It's unbelievable. By the time Granger gets back (in 3 months), RoseWatch will officially have begun, so the Bulls have a legit shot at the Central Division title (though if you have as little faith in Indiana as I do, you probably thought that anyway). But it gets better: with Bynum, Wall, Nene, Brooklyn's defense, Amar'e, possibly Kyle Lowry, and Avery Bradley (who, despite the after-the-fact LeBron ass-kissing of the last 5 months, I really do think could have pushed Boston to the Finals) all missing in action, the conference is wide open. We're one high-speed midcourt collision between LeBron and DWade away from serious contention in the East!
There's plenty of reasons to be apathetic right now - no DRose, the dissolution of the Bench Mob, the Hard Cap (not to be confused with the Hard Hat), the slow and inexorable decline of Hinrich from Captain Kirk to Priceline Negotiator - but there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. Let's hope that light is the Promised Land and not the Kevin Durant Express.
PG: Kirk Hinrich vs. Russell Westbrook: You can almost see it now: somewhere around the top of the key, Kirk is busy unfogging his goggles. Dr. Russell blasts past him into the lane with a jetpack up his ass, but wait! In an instant, the medication wears off and he begins his terrible transformation into Mr. Westbrook. Halting his 90mph drive at the free throw line, he pulls up for a wild, off-balance, fade-into-it jumper/floater over the outstretched hands of gargantuan human Joakim Noah, even though Kevin Durant is standing five feet away, wide open, signaling like a lost arctic explorer who's just spotted a plane. The shot bounces off the rim. Noah tries to cover a ranging Ibaka and the lane at the same time, while the court turns to quicksand and swallows Carlos Boozer to the ankles. Westbrook notches an offensive rebound, another miss, another offensive rebound, and finally an assist, while Kirk shows tremendous grit and leadership in comforting his coach until the paramedics arrive.
Seriously, though, according to NBA.com, during the 2010-11 season (for which there is more data) Hinrich forced Westbrook into more shots, a lower shooting percentage, and more three pointers than his replacements. That's not surprising, since he's a plus defender. But it's also a) two years ago and b) the absolute best we can hope for. Kirk isn't going to score, not based on these last few games, so his only purpose will be to attempt to force Bad Russell out of his shell. When the Thunder go to their Westbrook/Martin/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins lineup, the Bulls will abused at the guard spots, since their only hope for good on-ball defense - Kirk and Jimmy - are an impotent offensive combination. Not that it needs to be said, but EDGE THUNDER.
SG: Richard "Gametime Decision" Hamilton vs. Thabo Sefolosha: Thabo - the Keith Bogans of the Thunder. It occurs to me that we traded a starter who ought to be a bench player for a bench player (Taj) who ought to be a starter. I think we won that one. Thabo's good at his job, though, which is basically to be all over your best wings like Charles Barkley at Hooters. He'll run around after Rip because his only responsibility on offense is to make open threes if you leave him in the corner, which the Raptors did to disastrous results on Tuesday. Rip's defense has been shitty, but it won't be a factor here. EDGE BULLS.
SF: Luol Deng vs. Kevin Durant: Lu's about as much as you could ask for in a guy tasked with guarding the most dynamic scorer in the game, and he's coming off a good offensive effort against the Magic. Meanwhile, Durant seems to be trying for a more all-around game, posting well below his career average in points (20.8) and well above it in rebounds (12.3) and assists (5.8) so far, though that includes the blowout against Toronto in which he played only 29 minutes. Gotta love Lu, but this is still EDGE THUNDER.
PF: Carlos Boozer vs. Serge Ibaka: Ibaka's been doing Ibaka things this season, with 2.3 blocks per game, and with only two games in the head-to-head database, I think we can safely say that Booz shooting over 60% and Ibaka being offensively useless is an aberration. We all know how Carlos does against strong, shot-blocking types. I think that Noah will be on Serge on defense, but if that leaves Carlos to protect the paint....ugh. EDGE THUNDER.
C: Joakim Noah vs. Kendrick Perkins: If Kevin Garnett was here tonight, I think the low post would just be a mugging contest while the guards played basketball. Perk's an overpaid banger, Jo's an allstar. EDGE BULLS.
Coach: Thibs vs. Scotty: Multiple sources claim that part of the difficulty in Thibs' extension negotiations stemmed from the fact that he'd be paid roughly the same as a man who spent his off-season getting married and doing arts and crafts like a little girly-man. Also, here's an interesting note: the first Google auto-fill for thibs is "Tom Thibodeau Gay", and it turns up zero actual stories. Benny Hill would be ashamed of you people. He might be gay, but he also may be some sort of Basketball Monk, or frequent a strip club called "The Film Room" so as not to arouse suspicion. EDGE BULLS
Bench: NateRob is growing on me, but he's no Kevin Martin. On the other hand, Collison is no Taj Gibson. I miss the days when the Bulls bench was automatically a plus. Side note: After Tuesday, according to Stacy, Neil is no longer allowed to say, "Hot Sauce!", ever. He did suggest "Picante!" as a replacement. I for one think that every time Marco gets a bucket, Neil should yell, "Fra Diavolo!", which is Italian for Hot Sauce. Also, whenever Carlos gets stuffed or worked on the block, he could yell, "Bocconcini!", which is Italian for "Small Mozzarella Balls".
LENS CRAFTERS DESIGNATED PLAYER THAT NEIL FUNK SHITS ON ALL GAME: Bad Russell, unless Good Russell shows up, in which case I'm going with Kevin Martin on account of his defense. [This needs to be a regular feature again, someone dig up that photoshop someone made of the TV graphic -yfbb]
True story: I just moved to Texas, and on my way down I stayed over in OKC. I was at a Motel next to a Waffle House, so I can't exactly testify to their cultural landmarks, but I learned two things: 1) the Dust Bowl is over - who knew? and 2) people there really love their team. Even passing through I saw Thunder gear everywhere. They're not quite at LA everyone-and-their-grandma-in-Kobe-gear level, but it's still cool to see all that support. Tonight they're the enemy, but show some respect for another passionate fan base and go argue with the good folks at Welcome to Loud City.
Game's at 7 on TNT. See Red!!!