[Thanks to Tommy for today's game preview -yfbb]
6:30 PM CT/ 4:30PM PT
Barclays Center, BROOKLYN
Hot on the heels of a dominant home win against the New York Knicks, the Bulls turn their attention to their more successful NY neighbor, the Brooklyn Nets. Even if you didn't have the NBA Jam jingle running through your brain like I did yesterday (He's heating up...He's on fire!), it's undeniable that the Bulls have been playing amazing basketball. Noah's MVP chants in the fourth quarter were well deserved setting a franchise record with 14 assists. No center has achieved such a mark since the 1985-1986 season. His game even earned a shout-out from Kevin Love, one of the other elite passing big-men in the game, and Steve Kerr. Joakim Noah is in the midst of a remarkable season and it's tough not to agree that they do indeed seem like the hungriest team in the NBA.
The Bulls' trip to Brooklyn will be a homecoming for both Noah and Taj Gibson. The Barclays Center is literally right down the street from where Gibson played pickup basketball as a kid. Noah memorably had one of the most inspiring games of his career against Brooklyn closing out Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year. Underdogs and missing Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose, Joakim toasted the Nets down low posting a line of 24 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 6 blocks. Oh, and that was also while playing in excruciating pain from the plantar fascitis that sidelined him during game one of the series. To say that Noah gets amped up playing in front of family and friends might be an understatement.
Despite the momentum from their big win Sunday afternoon, the main headline in this evening's game may in fact be Jason Collins making his Brooklyn debut. Collins made history last week becoming the first openly gay and active NBA player. Jersey sales of Collins' #98 (an ode to the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard) quickly became the top seller at the NBA store. The NBA has announced that they are generously donating all proceeds of the sales, estimated to be over $100,000, to both Shepard's foundation and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The story of Jason Collins has dominated NBA headlines recently and for good reason.
The Brooklyn Nets have turned their season around after starting the season 3-10. After a very public fall-out with assistant Lawrence Frank, rampant criticism of the first time head coach, and frequent rumors of losing his grip on the locker room, Jason Kidd emerged at the beginning of February as the January Eastern Conference Coach of the Month. The Nets reversed their opening record going 10-3 in January, winning four of five on the road including a dramatic victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a league where coaches are easily discarded, even if they've just won Coach of the Year honors, it's rare to see such redemption for a head coach.
The Nets are now one game under .500 and the sixth seed in the East, a desirable seeding as it would ensure the avoidance of both Indiana and Miami in the first round. Unfortunately, the Bulls are on the cusp of grabbing the #3 seed and in addition to eliminating the Nets in round one last year, the Bulls have also won both match-ups this year by an average of 16.5 points. The Bulls' nationally televised beatdown on Christmas Day, led by Gibsons' 20/8/2/2, was a season low-light for the Nets. Brooklyn is playing better basketball this time around.
The Nets arguably made the largest moves this offseason. From the blockbuster trade that brought in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the suspicious and subsequently investigated signing of Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian owner of the Nets has made it crystal clear that he thinks he can spend his way to a championship. Opening the season with an estimated luxury tax bill of $80 million, the Nets continue to make expensive moves. As we all know, the Bulls traded their 2012 first rounder Marquis Teague for bench fodder Tornike Shengalia, and with luxury tax penalties, the Nets will be paying twice his 2013 salary to provide depth at the point. Also, Teague's 2014 contract was picked up by the Bulls, guaranteeing him slightly over $1MM next season. More recently, the Nets acquired Marcus Thornton before the deadline in exchange for Reggie Evans and Jason Terry, adding $700K in salary this season, but $2.7MM in luxury taxes.
Despite the aggressive moves, the Nets are still clearly in the middle of the pack. They rank 19th in Hollinger's Defensive Efficiency and 16th in Offensive Efficiency. Partly this is due to the injury bug. In December, Brook Lopez was officially ruled out for the season with a broken foot. The loss of their all-star big man has contributed to their being second to last in the league in rebounds per game. Before going down, Lopez was posting the best PER of his career at 25.5 with averages of 20.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on a ridiculous 56% shooting.
I'd like to think that after last season, the Bulls have begun to develop a bit of a rivalry with the Nets. As both have been climbing the Eastern Conference ladder to challenge defending champs, the Miami Heat, match ups between the two have had an extra bit of significance. Adding former Celtic-rivals Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has only fueled that fire. I fondly remember Joakim Noah defiantly expressing his dislike of Kevin Garnett a few years ago at a press conference as DRose giggles uncontrollably next to him.
Tonight, Garnett's status is in doubt, having missed Saturday's bout with the Milwaukee Bucks due to back spasms. Andre Blatche continues to give them solid minutes off the bench and 1st round rookie Mason Plumlee has shown flashes of potential this season impressing in this year's Rising Stars Challenge. I'll be hoping to see appearances of both Marquis Teague, who would understandably like to show Thibodeau what he lost, and Jimmer Fredette, already shooting 50% from the field for Chicago!
The remaining roster and injury report is as follows:
BULLS PROJECTED STARTERS
PG - Kirk Hinrich
SG - Jimmy Butler
SF - Mike Dunleavy
PF - Carlos Boozer
C - Joakim Noah
Out: Derrick Rose (knee)
NETS PROJECTED STARTERS
PG - Deron Williams
PG/SG - Shaun Livingston
SG - Joe Johnson
SF - Paul Pierce
PF/C - Kevin Garnett (game time decision - back spasms)
Out: Brook Lopez (foot)
Enjoy the game. Go Bulls!