[Thanks again to Alex for a game preview. Sign up, the rest of you! -yfbb]
After a typically noble-if-hopeless vanquishing at the hands of the Houston Rockets last night and losses in six of their last seven games, your Chicago Bulls play a second consecutive national game, where they are sure to… suffer an embarrassing road loss against one of the OTHER best teams in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
PG – Russell Westbrook – Last night, Patrick Beverly outplayed the Bulls’ new starting point guard, DJ Augustin, to the tune of 15 points, 3 assists and several clutch plays (though Augustin had a competent night with 8 points and 9 assists of his own). And Patrick Beverly is probably not even be a top-20 point guard in this league right now. Tonight’s game features some guy named RUSSELL WESTBROOK and his back-up, Reggie Jackson, both of whom are significantly better than Patrick Beverly. It’s going to be an all-out track race at the PG position for these guys; look for a lot of explosive finishes and a lot of Augustin and Teague losing their men in transition. It’s just going to happen. On a lighter note, Westbrook, eight months removed from a meniscus tear of his own, looks to be pretty much all the way back to his pre-injury self, which maybe bodes well for a certain meniscus-challenged point guard on the Bulls’ own roster? Westbrook boasts averages of 21 points per game, 1.9 steals, 6.7 dimes and a whopping 5.8 rebounds (1st among point guards), his shooting percentages are nothing to write home about (41.1% overall, 30% from behind the arc, but a solid 77.6% FT%), but how about that 20.45 PER eh (ranking him 7th among point guards)? The man is just MONEY.
SG – Thabo Sefolosha – Remember when Thabo was on the Baby Bulls and the best player on our team was BG7? I actually thought we could go to the Finals in 2008. THE FINALS. Instead, Ben Wallace led the team in banning Joakim Noah from two games, we fell out of the playoff race, landed in the lottery, and bagged Derrick Rose. Not a bad consolation prize. But anyway, back to the Swiss Army Knife (that should be his nickname, but I don’t think it is) – Thabo's shooting has suffered a bit since last year (he shot 41.2% on triples , mostly from the corners, for the 2012-13 season, and now is at a very pedestrian 26.8%), but his man defense is still very much on point, and that's really what OKC is paying him to do.
SF – Kevin Durant - Did you know that Kevin Durant is averaging 28.6 points, 1.5 steals, 8.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists a night while shooting 48.7% from the field, 40.6% from deep and 87.9% from the free throw line? And that he’s only 25 and is probably 3-4 years away from his prime? Okay, fine, you probably did. But HOT DAMN this kid is good. And he's still only the second best player in the NBA.
PF – Serge Ibaka -- Unfortunately, I think Jo may have a frontcourt seat for a BLOCK PARTY tonight. The dude is only 24 and is averaging 14.6 points, 2.7 blocks (a down number for him) and 9.5 rebounds a night. As a bonus, he shoots 78.8% from the stripe. "Air Congo" will be an All-Star pretty soon, probably not this season because of the sheer depth of the forward class in the West, but definitely within the next three years. At $12.25 million a year for the next three seasons, the league's leading shot-blocker two years running (he's third behind Anthony Davis and Roy Hibbert this year so far), also a two-time All-Defensive First Teamer, is probably a bargain.
C – Kendrick Perkins – This man can barely catch a basketball, and yet he is the starting center on what many folks consider to be the best team out west. The 6'10", 270-lb. Perk still plays competent D against elite post centers, but out west that pretty much amounts to Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Andrew Bogut When He’s Healthy. So is that skill set worth $8.47 million a season? Since joining the Thunder, he has lacked whatever edge he had in Boston pre-ACL surgery in 2010, but must be some kind of spectacular inspirational speaker in the locker room. That is the only possible explanation Perkins has not been amnestied and replaced with a more skilled starting center like, oh, I don’t know, literally anybody else. Entire, super-funny satirical articles have been written in tribute to his ineptitude. Of course, there is a very good defensive-minded center actively being circulated around the L by the very team that suckered these guys out of James Harden... but the fact is, the Thunder could totally use Omer Asik, but I doubt that they would want to pay him $15 million next season.
Key Bench Players
PG – Reggie Jackson -- After a breakout performance in the playoffs last year for OKC, the Thunder's newest Sixth Man of the Year contender has kept it up this season, averaging 12 ppg and 3.5 apg while shooting 47.5% from the field and a psychotic-and-totally unsustainable 95.3% from the free throw line (albeit with a somewhat low 1.7 free throw attempts per game). He's young, athletic, efficient, and would be averaging 20 points and 8 assists if he was on the Bulls.
SG – Jeremy Lamb -- After languishing in the D-League for much of his rookie season, Lamb, along with Jackson, has been a key force in fleshing out the Thunder's ridiculous depth this season, with one of the better offensive and defensive benches in the league. Lamb is averaging 9.8 points a game and shooting 39.7% from three and is only 21. Looks like replacing Kevin Martin is a problem when you have the scouting staff of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
C – Steven Adams -- "Raw" is an adjective that gets bandied about so often when it comes to young centers entering the league that you would think it's tattooed on these kids' oversized faces. Well, rookie big man Steven Adams was certainly no exception. The only major minutes that the 20 year old out of Pitt (by way of New Zealand) was expected to be racking up this season were in the D-League. But, thanks to the borderline-incompetence of starting center (and overpaid salary cap albatross) Kendrick Perkins (Perkins's minutes are down to a little over 18 a game, by the way), Adams has seen some run this year, putting up 3.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in a little under 16 minutes a contest. Were one to interpolate that into 36 minutes of game action (always a dangerous thing to do, but screw it), that would translate to 8.9 points, 10.6 boards, and 2.1 blocks a game -- which all compare favorably against Perk's comparable per-36 minute numbers (6.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks). Of course, Adams, at only 20, also has lots and lots of room to develop on both sides of the ball -- but especially on offense, and is an absolute athletic specimen (with a 7'4.5" wingspan!) whereas Perkins is, well, not. Point being, Sam Presti drafted really well. Again. Now if only he could talk ownership (there's a reason Chesapeake Arena is nicknamed "Cheapskate Arena" aside from the fact that that's what dyslexics call it) into letting him amnesty Perkins...
The Bulls’ Starting 5: Augustin, Butler, Deng, Boozer, Noah.
Overall Performance Outlook: Yet another loss looms on the horizon tonight. A team with absolutely no offense gets flattened by one of the best two-way teams in the NBA in another hard-fought, double-digit loss. I should probably clarify that this should be read as good news, because all losses are a step towards the Bulls' "Safari to Jabari" ("Sorry for Jabari" doesn't make any sense, I'm officially coining a new phrase for tanking for Jabari Parker RIGHT NOW).
Random Thought: Think about how much better the Bulls would be if we even just had Reggie Jackson slotted in at the 1 spot! Actually, you know what, maybe don’t think about it.
Tip at 7:00 CST/8:00 EST TNT.