Bulls vs. Nets Christmas Day preview: coal for everyone

Elsa

[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview. This will serve as the Game Thread today as well. GAME THREAD UP. Have a nice holiday -yfbb]

Tomorrow, two plodding, overpriced Eastern Conference bottom-feeders face off in what was supposed to be the first of several imagined "marquee" Christmas Day match-ups: the Brooklyn Nets (currently seeded 11th in the East) and your Chicago Bulls (9th) at the Barclays Center. I CAN BARELY CONTAIN MY EXCITEMENT.

Of course, both these teams will be at a bit less than full strength: for the Bulls, aside from the injury-that-will-not-be-named, our second-best player Luol Deng’s lingering left Achilles inflammation has left him a game-time decision; while Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are apparently going to play through a right ankle sprain and back issues, respectively. For the very, very expensive Nets, the one-time AK47 (I’m sorry, he just doesn’t deserve such a cool nickname if he can barely walk) has been "out indefinitely" with back issues of his own since November 9th, and just three days ago Brook Lopez of course broke the foot that has plagued him on and off since 2011 and is out for the duration of this season. A note on D.J. Augustin: he has been playing fairly well for the Bulls, averaging 10 buckets and a very-encouraging 6.5 dimes per game, and very clearly playing much, much better than any Bulls point guard not named Derrick Rose has this season (he's shooting a less-than-awesome 37.7% from the field through six games, but hey, it's a small sample size, give the man a break).

On Monday, three new All-Star vets became questionable for the NBA’s Christmas Day "spectacular," a day that's supposed to be reserved for sweet basketball games but this year for the first four games is just not. Among the injured studs are the Nets’ second-best player, Deron Williams, is very possibly out with a tweaked ankle suffered in yet another embarrassing blow-out loss, this one against the Pacers (who, granted, are among the class of the NBA); Carmelo Anthony sprained his ankle against the Magic; and Dwyane Wade sat with knee soreness in the Heat’s overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks (Wade will probably play on Wednesday since he’s basically on the Tim Duncan plan now anyway, but whether or not he’s out full strength is irrelevant because the Heat are playing the Lakers and will win regardless). To sum up, then, the Nets and Bulls are both without their two best players. And three borderline-unwatchable Christmas games (Bulls-Nets, Thunder-Knicks and Heat-Lakers) unless you're a sadist (and, well, when it comes to the Lakers, I kind of am) just got way less watchable. This is not going to be pretty. Although if you're not salivating over the Rockets-Spurs (at 7 CST) or Warriors-Clips (9:30 CST) prime-time games, you must not like basketball.

I think there’s a very good chance that the Bulls and the Nets could make the playoffs, and those are two teams that will be hard-pressed to exceed 35 victories this season. Hopefully the team still in possession of its own picks in the 2014 NBA Draft sees the light and moves Luol Deng to go all-in on the Safari for Jabari. And hopefully that same team takes the time for some serious personnel assessment of its medical staff this next off-season.

PG – Shaun LivingstonIn eight starts this year, former prep phenom Livingston sports averages of 6.6 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.9 rpg, and only 1 turnover in 27.6 minutes. Normally, he has been a solid option for the Nets off the bench, in his second year of reinvention as a full-time back-up PG following a good year as Kyrie's sub in Cleveland. Following a grisly in-game knee injury (this video probably isn't something you'd want to watch on Christmas Eve, by the way) while driving on a breakaway in 2007, there were serious questions as to whether Livingston would be able to return to the NBA in any capacity at all. So, frankly, the fact that Livingston can contribute in a meaningful way to a team at all is inspiring. Too bad that team is the Nets. Cumulatively, he's shooting 85.5% from the free throw line, which is nice. But clearly he has lost his pre-knee injury athleticism, so imperative in getting to the rim, and the team will lose a lot of games if he has to start for an extended period of time.

SG – Joe JohnsonThere were times earlier this season where Joe Johnson was the only healthy pre-ordained starter on the floor as his other All-Star teammates sat with injuries, and the team expected him to step up and take on more of the Nets' scoring attack... and he didn't, really. It took the return of D-Will to allow Johnson to rediscover his niche: as a really, really good shooter who can create sometimes. On the 16th, Johnson absolutely went off, sinking 10 of 14 three-point attempts and collecting 37 points overall on the night. This season he has been considerably more efficient than last year while averaging a fairly similar 16.5 points per game (vs. 16.3 last year), shooting 45% from the field and 42% from behind the arc, which compares very favorably to his cumulative averages last year of 42.3% from the field and 37.5% from three. If the Nets have any chance of making a playoff push, it hinges on Johnson and Williams stepping up post-Brook (who had been averaging 20.7 points, 1.8 blocks and 6 rebounds a game).

SF – Alan AndersonAnderson has supplanted Paul Pierce in the starting line-up for now, and he's been a decent get for the Nets on a minimum deal ($947.9K) after a nice season in the wilderness of Toronto (he was clutch for my fantasy team last year), posting averages of 9.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting a nice 38% from deep (and 82% from the line). His production is good for his salary, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily a good starting wing. He's a decent starting wing at best.

SF/PF – Mirza TeletovicWith Lopez now done, Teletovic moves into the starting line-up at power forward (he's only 6'8", but that's about average for a contemporary small-ball PF). I'm a little surprised Kidd didn't go for Andray Blatche at the five and KG at the four, since Blache is 6'11", has a much higher ceiling and is just playing better than Teletovic this season (averaging 11.7 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes, versus Teletovic's pedestrian 6.7 points and 3.6 boards). Teletovic does shoot the three-ball well, averaging 38.7% from three this season. Still though, KG can shoot and generally plays high post now, while Blatche plays low post. It would be a better fit, no?

C – Kevin GarnettI don't even want to talk about the season KG has been having. Let's just move on.

Key Bench Players

SF – Paul Pierce – Pierce has at least been putting up a fight against his inevitable decline, but the difference between even this year and last year is pretty dramatic: 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists a night on 40.2% shooting and 34.5% from three marks a significant drop-off from 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists a night on 43.6% shooting and 38% on treys; even when accounting for a 4-minute minutes reduction, his per-36 minutes numbers compare unfavorably across most of the major categories (20 points last year vs. 15.6 points this year, 5.2 assists last year vs. 3.6 assists this year, obviously the disparity in shooting percentages; rebounds per 36 minutes are pretty similar though, 6.8 last year and 6.5 this year). He's clearly lost a step or three, and it's depressing. Not as depressing as whatever's happened to Garnett, but still.

PF – Mason Plumlee – One of the few bright spots in the Nets' season has been the solid play in limited minutes of their #22 rookie pick, Mason Plumlee out of Duke. Plumlee is averaging 6.2 points and 3 rebounds in only 16.9 minutes of play on pretty much all high-efficiency shots around the rim (67.1% FG%), which is what you want for a decent big man. He may be a decent starting power forward one day.

The Bulls’ Starting 5: Augustin (Thibs better not start Kirk, is all I have to say), Snell, Butler, Boozer, Noah.

Overall Performance Outlook: The Bulls may be bad, but at least they have a good coach. In a brutal slog of a game that will have a lot of trouble yielding a winning score above the mid-80s, look for our guys to pull out another W. Considering who we’re facing in the coming weeks, could be our last win for a little while. Go... Bulls?

Random Thought: So, last year, Mikhail Prokhorov fired Avery Johnson when the Nets were at 14-14. This year, the Nets are currently sinking fast at 9-18, and they have added three (super-old) All Stars in KG, the Truth and AK47. When's he giving J-Kidd that pink slip?

Tip at 11:00 AM CST/12:00 PM EST ESPN.

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