[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
When I last checked in two weeks ago with a Bulls-Mavs preview (I predicted in my preview that we would lose, but the Bulls rallied back from a 16-point deficit to notch the W over a pretty good Dallas team that would go on to beat the Pacers and Blazers back-to-back in subsequent weeks), I took the Bulls' then-recent string of solid play to be an encouraging sign that the ship was being righted, but nothing more. I did not, frankly, think they'd be able to keep winning at that clip. I was wrong.
Suddenly, with the consistently elevated play of Captain Kirk, D.J. Augustin, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and especially JoNo, your hard-hat, lunch-pail Chicago Bulls have become one of the best feel-good stories in the NBA. They are 23-10 since January 1st, making them (along with the Rockets, Clippers and the, um, Nets) one of the winningest teams of 2014. Noah might become just the third center EVER (after Wilt and David Robinson) to average 12 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a single season, and though Boozer is borderline-worthless on defense, his rebounding and ability to score around the post (I wouldn't say "around the rim" anymore because clearly some of his lift is gone and he has been favoring shots a bit further away from the hoop than I would like). Clearly, this is a team that has taken the "Grit 'n' Grind" ethos of the Memphis Grizzlies to heart, a bunch of underdogs (aside from Noah, who is obviously a beast) who lock into a stifling defense first, and an equal-opportunity, pick-and-roll heavy offense later.
The Spurs, however, aren't just any other opponent. As the Bulls welcome the NBA's best team (by winning percentage) into the UC tonight, they will do best to keep that in mind. While teams like the Thunder, Pacers and Heat weather uncharacteristic losses (the Thunder are just 3-5 since Westbrook's return from his third knee surgery in 12 months; the Pacers are riding a season-high 4-game losing streak, and the Heat snapped a three-game swoon of their own last night in besting the Team That Should Never Have Changed Its Name From The Totally Bad-Ass And Un-PC Washington Bullets), the Spurs have been KILLING IT since Tony Parker's return four games ago from a "variety of maladies." Not that they were chopped liver before: the Spurs are currently on a 6-game win streak (and winners of 13 of their last 16 games), and are at the healthiest they've been since the 2012 Western Conference Finals (Ginobili was in and out of the line-up all year last season with back trouble and looked semi-done aside from a memorable Game 5 in the 2013 Finals, but this year he has come back with a vengeance, which I will detail later). Ever since Pop handed the keys to Parker in 2010, the team's offense has been a well-oiled machine and their biggest weapon.
PG - Tony Parker - The Spurs' de facto leader, Parker would for sure be in the MVP conversation were it not for Popovich's (wise, it turns out) harsh minutes restrictions. Thanks to the competent back-up work of Patty Mills and to a lesser extent Cory Joseph, Parker only sees 30.8 minutes of play a game, averaging 17.8 points and 6.8 dishes per night on a great 50.8% shooting (37.7% from three), plus 80.2% from the charity stripe. His Popovich-mandated sabbatical in the second half of February might become a regular occurrence in future seasons, considering how well the Spurs have done since his return (notching double-digit wins in three of their four victories since he came back on the 2nd, winning two of those three by 20 points).
SG - Danny Green - A guy the Spurs resuscitated off the scrap heap a few years ago (he was cut by Cleveland), the 6'6" Green has been a huge asset to San Antonio, though his very-good 39.4% three-point shooting is down a bit from the elite 42.9% number he posted last season. His size has enabled Popovich to slot him into a lot of different line-up looks and play him alongside Ginoboli or Bellinelli a lot this season, and his performance in the Finals has given him the confidence to shoot whenever he gets the rock.
SF - Kawhi Leonard - Although people expected Leonard to make "The Leap" to All-Star stud status this year after a fantastic NBA Finals where he played a lot more stretch 4 than he has since, the 6'7", 225-pound Leonard has still been a very good two-way player on what just might be the best team in the NBA. His per-game numbers are pretty much even with where they were last year even though he has had to cede 2 minutes (down from 31.2 last year to 28.9 this year) to a crowded, wing-heavy bench (primarily to the now-healthy Batman and Spaghetti Sauce). His numbers per 36 minutes have risen accordingly, from 13.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists to 15 points, 7.6 boards and 2.3 dimes; his cutting-heavy overall shooting is also up, from 49.4% to 52.2% (including 58.3% on 2-pointers). The big disparity is that his 3-point shooting has kind of leveled off, down a bit from last year's 37.4% to 35.8% this year, about league average. He should be good against the Bulls in bigger line-ups guarding someone like Boozer.
PF - Tim Duncan - TIMMAH is averaging 15.6 points and 10.0 rebounds in a scant 29.6 minutes, and as usual he's at right about the same spot he's always in per 36 minutes (this year it's 18.8 points, 12.2 rebounds an 3.5 assists, his career averages are 20.8, 11.5 and 3.2). He didn't make the All-Star team this year in a crowded West, but he for sure would've crashed the party in the East ahead of fucking Paul Millsap or whatever. Sometimes there just isn't that much to say when you're confronted with true athletic greatness, so I'll just shut up about Duncan and gently needle Tiago Splitter.
C - Tiago Splitter - Although Splitter is totally overpaid (a 4-year, $36 million deal was inked this summer for a guy who disappeared in the NBA Finals against an undersized Heat squad -- just imagine what the Spurs could've done this year with Al Jefferson at Splitter's position or Paul Millsap at the 4 and Duncan at the 5), he has been OK for the Spurs this season as a solid low-post option alongside Duncan, especially on defense. Splitter is averaging a somewhat-lame 8.4 points (his lowest numbers since his rookie year on the Spurs when he was logging 12.3 minutes a game) and 3.9 rebounds per game in 21.4 minutes a night, a bit of a drop-off from last year's still-not-stellar-but-passable numbers of 10.3 points and 6.4 boards in 24.7 minutes per. Boris Diaw has been the preferred complimentary piece to Duncan this year, but the 6'11" Splitter has been helpful when the Spurs combat larger teams, so expect to see a decent amount of Splitter tonight.
Key Bench Players:
PG/SG/SF - Manu Ginobili/Marco Belinelli - I'm listing these two together because they perform similar 6th-man functions for the Spurs. Beli is a huge upgrade over Gary Neal, who's basically just a shooting point guard; Beli has the size (6'5") and facilitating ability to play the 1 or the 2 (although, as we know, he's not much of a defender, he IS very willing to at least try at that end of the court), whereas the 6'6" Ginobili's crazy-creative cutting, court awareness and psychotic defensive gambling make him a similarly multi-positional player. Also, hey, All-Star 3-Point Shoot-Out champ Belinelli is shooting 44% PERCENT FROM THREE THIS SEASON. Ginobili is averaging a great 12.3 points per 23.2 minutes (shooting an OK 34.7% from deep and a SICK 54.2% 2-point shooting -- mostly sick lay-ups) and Beli is at 11.4 points per 25.2 minute (shooting an IDENTICALLY SICK 54.2% on his 2-point field goals). Both are also very, very good free throw shooters, obviously.
PF/C - Boris Diaw - It's not Diaw's fault he's 6'8" and kind of hefty and was expected to get the most important rebound of his life over the much, much spryer 6'11" ostrich-velociraptor Chris Bosh. It's Pop's fault that Tim Duncan wasn't in there to secure the board and the championship in the final seconds of a game the Spurs should have won. Diaw's unique all-around offensive skill set still makes him a special cog in this San Antonio offense -- a passing big man (not a Joakim Noah-level passing big man, but hey, who is?) with mid- and long-range shooting skills, Diaw has been supplanting Splitter this year as Popovich's Duncan compliment of choice when the Spurs have the rock. Part of that could be due to the preponderance of small-ball teams across the league, but in a tall Western Conference I don't know if that's necessarily the whole story. Diaw is averaging 9.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 25.4 minutes a night, plus shooting 42.9% on 1.3 3-point attempts per game and 55.5% from the field overall (on 7.5 shot attempts a game). ALL of these numbers are up significantly over last year, where Diaw averaged 5.8 points a game, 3.4 boards and 2.4 assists in 22.8 minutes a game, plus 38.5% on 1.0 3's a game for 53.9% from the field overall (on 4.4 attempts per). The 31 year-old Frenchman is finding his groove on these Spurs, playing his best ball since his D'Antoni Seven Seconds or Less Suns days.
The Bulls' Starting 5: Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah.
Overall Performance Outlook: You know what? Screw it. I say the Bulls take this. We are just rolling right now, and the Spurs are due for a let down after so much recent brilliance. I say Gregg Popovich conserves his Big Three's minutes and Noah and Butler practically kill themselves playing a combined 84 minutes in a clutch victory.
-Yesterday on Waddle and Silvy, Thibs essentially restricted Jimmer Fredette's inclusion into the Bulls' rotation to an injury emergency. This kind of bugs me. I thought the whole point of the Jimmer signing was to add some offensive punch off the bench AND to relieve Jimmy Butler/Mike Dunleavy for about 8-10 meaningful minutes a night, since Thibs doesn't seem to trust Tony Snell. If he doesn't want to deploy Fredette either, then what was the point of that signing? Why didn't we grab a Ronnie Brewer/Delonte West defense-first wing type? Butler is a beast, sure, but he shouldn't have to be a Deng-type ironman in terms of minutes per. I honestly do think that Fredette if given some run would be a better fit than wing defenders who can't shoot, because the Bulls could still benefit from another floor-spacer. If Thibs can integrate non-defenders like 'Los and middling defenders like Augustin into the 2nd-toughest defense in the league (behind the slumping Pacers), then surely he should be able to cover up for Jimmer, no?
-I think Indy is suddenly vulnerable. Their offense is ranked a -nonthreatening 21st in the L, George Hill and C.J. Watson have been in and out of the line-up with injuries (and I would definitely take the Bulls' point guards over Indy's if Hill is out or limited and their main threat at that position is... the guy responsible for doing this and this in the two biggest games of his career), and Roy Hibbert's D and Paul George's O have been erratic. We have a very slight puncher's chance against them now. And we won't back down from Miami, either. Although I don't think there's any way we beat them if they're healthy.
Tip at 7 PM CST/8 EST on WGN TV/ESPN-AM 1000.