Though both teams got back in the win column on Friday, neither the Chicago Bulls nor the Oklahoma City Thunder can be too happy about their recent play coming into Sunday's clash at the Chesapeake Energy Center.
Seemingly starting to fatigue after playing heavy minutes in the season's first half, the Bulls have struggled in February. They are just 4-6 this month, including 2-6 against teams that are currently in the playoffs. More disconcertingly, Chicago's offensive efficiency has cratered of late.
The Bulls scored fewer than 70 points twice in their last four games and have only reached triple digits twice this month.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have had no problems scoring 100-plus points. Their difficulty seems to be keeping opposing teams from doing the same. Oklahoma City has given up over 100 points in each of its past four contests, losing three. The recent swoon has pushed the Thunder back to eighth place in defensive efficiency, which is likely what they had in mind when trading for Ronnie Brewer at the deadline.
With both teams needing a win to keep momentum building in the right direction, this should be a hard-fought nationally televised contest. Here is a complete preview of Sunday night's matchup, including a look at the key factors and matchups for both sides.
Start Time: Sunday, Feb. 24 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Location: Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City
Team Records: Chicago Bulls (32-23) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-15)
TV Info: ESPN
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Bulls Injury Report (Via CBS Sports):
PG Kirk Hinrich, Elbow, Questionable
PG Derrick Rose, Knee, Out
Thunder Injury Report (Via CBS Sports):
Key Storyline: "This...Russ Is On Fiiiiire"
The past five games have seen Russell Westbrook become nearly the best possible version of who he can be as a player. He's averaging 27.4 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 48.9 percent from the floor, including a 64.3 percent rate from beyond the arc.
He's knocking down shots at a vastly more efficient rate, but only minimally using more possessions, per NBA.com. In Oklahoma City's victory over Minnesota on Friday, Ricky Rubio got a first-hand taste of possibly a season-best Westbrook performance. He scored 37 points, knocking down all of his free throws and three-pointers, dished nine assists and grabbed seven boards while leading the Thunder on a frenetic offensive pace.
Granted, not everything has been roses Westbrook. He's averaging 5.8 turnovers per game over the last five, which may well cause Scott Brooks to switch hairlines with Tom Thibodeau by the end of Sunday's contest. But that's Westbrook. You take the utterly brilliant and contrast it to the confounding and hope that more of the former shows up on a nightly basis.
And if the Bulls' point guard situation is any indication, we should see more brilliance. Kirk Hinrich may have to sit out due to an elbow injury. While he's not a plus defender by any stretch, the alternative could be awfully fun to watch for Thunder fans.
To put it another way, if Nate Robinson is tasked with guarding Westbrook for 30-plus minutes, then he may wind up going for 50 points. The Bulls rotate too well and have a complex enough defensive scheme that I'm obviously not predicting that, but it would be a shock to see Westbrook go lower than 30 on Sunday.
Key Matchup: Kevin Durant vs. Luol Deng
This is the type of matchup that any good basketball fan just adores. On one side, you have the most gifted scorer in the world, and on the other, you have arguably the league's most tenacious wing defender.
It's exceedingly hard to take anything away from a one-game sample size. But though the Thunder wound up defeating the Bulls in the teams' first matchup, Deng got the better of Durant until the very end of the contest.
Finding a weakness in Durant's scoring palette has become nearly impossible. In his first few years, you wanted him to put the ball on the deck because his ball handling was deficient. Durant fixed that and has developed a vastly underrated dribble-drive game.
Now, in his finest professional season, it seems the best any defender can do against Durant is try to force him into the worst shot in basketball: the long mid-range jumper. Specifically for Durant, Deng needs to force long mid-range shots from the left side of the basket. Per NBA.com, that is the only space on the floor where Durant is truly deficient.
In their first matchup, Durant took just two of those shots from the left side. He missed both.
As for Deng, the scouting report has been the same for him since he entered the league: Take long jumpers all day, buddy. Given an increased scoring burden with Derrick Rose out this season, Deng has his highest usage rate in a half-decade, per ESPN, but his efficiency continues to dip.
Last season, Deng's true shot percentage dipped all the way down to 50.0 percent, his lowest rate since his rookie year, and it was seen as an aberration. As an All-Star, one would surmise that his shot rate has gone up, and it has—by 0.6 percent.
Deng is a below-average shooter from anywhere on the floor outside of 16 feet, save for the corners, where he has always been relatively strong.
It's easy to say Deng's "job" on the Bulls isn't to be a leading scorer, but that's not the case this season. He is their leading scorer and the only reason they were even in the first matchup to begin with.
Most will be concentrated on how Deng does guarding Durant, and rightfully so. But if Durant (and Thabo Sefolosha) can keep Deng's scoring to a minimum, it may not matter how the MVP candidate does offensively.
X-Factor: Nate Robinson
It may have taken five different teams and nearly being out of the league to do it, but it seems KryptoNate has finally found his perfect coach. Thibodeau has made Robinson at least somewhat commit on the defensive end, and the point guard's growing (relative) efficiency has continued this season.
That being said, when facing off against his old teams, Robinson puts every ounce of his soul on the floor. Call it his Napoleon complex or what have you, but whenever Robinson comes off the bench on Sunday, there will be shots flying and doing so early.
The problem is that it can go one of two ways. He can either put up 22 points in 21 minutes like he did against the Warriors on Jan. 25, or he can shoot himself into a 4-of-15 performance as he did versus the Knicks on Dec. 8. There is very rarely a Robinson game against one of his old teams where you go "meh."
It's no coincidence that Robinson played a combined 25 minutes the two times Chicago has been at Madison Square Garden this season. Thibodeau isn't the type of coach who is willing to let anything disrupt his team's flow, especially an overzealous gunner. So it will be interesting to see how Robinson is deployed on Sunday.
Based on their utterly benign scoring of late and Hinrich's injury status, Thibodeau may be forced into playing Robinson extended minutes whether he wants to or not. Robinson was the team's leading scorer against Miami on Thursday (albeit with 14 points), and he has put up double figures in eight of the Bulls' 10 games this month.
If Good Nate shows up, he could drop 20-plus points and keep Chicago in the game. One glimpse of Bad Nate, though, and the Bulls could go night-night against a finals contender for the second time in a four-day span.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Nate Robinson
SG: Richard Hamilton
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Which team will win?
One could try to skew the facts and say the Thunder will win mostly because they are 24-4 at home this season. That would be unfair, though. The Bulls are an NBA-best 17-10 on the road this season and have oftentimes played better away from the Windy City.
That being said, Oklahoma City will win for the simplest reason of all: It's just the better basketball team at this juncture. Chicago play up to its opponent as Thibodeau-coached teams always do, but there is just not enough scoring prowess to keep up with Westbrook and Durant.
Final Score Prediction: Thunder 101, Bulls 89