NBA fans will get an early look at a potential NBA Finals preview on Thursday night, when the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder travel to the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bulls.
Sure, we know that stars like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will take center stage prior to tip. But what about the impact players flying under the radar?
Here we highlight a trio of reserves who will turn in game-changing performances in Thursday night's marquee matchup.
Taj Gibson, PF
Taj Gibson doesn't just look like Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, but he plays a little bit like him as well. Before I get ripped apart, I'm referring to Gibson's style, not his overall ability.
Gibson has been a rebounding machine for Chicago since being drafted out of USC in 2009. He's averaging 5.3 rebounds per game this fall with the Bulls despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per night.
Expect him to be a major factor on the backboard for the Bulls on Thursday night, as the Thunder rank 10th in the league in rebounds per game this season.
At 6'9", 225 pounds, Gibson is also one of the NBA's most athletic power forwards, and can score and block shots at a high rate. He's averaging eight points per game for his career and a career-best 2.5 blocks per game this season.
Eric Maynor, PG
Oklahoma City's backup floor general, Eric Maynor, played in just nine games in 2011-12 because of an ACL injury suffered in January that ended his season.
Now he's back and looking to rediscover his rhythm behind Russell Westbrook in the Thunder backcourt. So far, it hasn't been pretty. Maynor has struggled early on this fall, averaging just 4.5 points and 1.3 assists in four games while shooting 35 percent from the field and a dismal 14 percent from beyond the arc.
Expect the fourth-year point guard to show up on Thursday night in Chicago, though. The Thunder will need him to maintain a successful pace when Westbrook checks out of the game. And as we've witnessed in the past, he's certainly capable of doing so.
Jimmy Butler, SF
The Bulls only loss so far this season was the one game in which second-year small forward Jimmy Butler didn't play at least 10 minutes. Coincidence?
I think not.
The 6'7" reserve is shooting a scorching 66.7 percent from the field through Chicago's first four games this season, and has missed only three shots in four games. Of course he's only attempted nine shots since the start of the year, but still, get the ball in this guys hands Tom Thibodeau.
Butler has turned the ball over just once in four games and can be a major factor on the boards in his limited time on the floor.
He's young and his game is improving night after night. Look for him to have his name called more than once on Thursday.
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