You can bet new Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen was thrilled to get two full days of practice before starting a three-game homestand Friday night against the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder.
Boylen told reporters he was going back to basics, holding a pair of training camp-style practices complete with the old high school suicide runs to improve the team’s conditioning. Which begs the question: Will we see a Bulls’ team take the court with tired legs on Friday?
Let’s hope not, because the Thunder roll into town winning 16 of their last 19 games after an 0-4 start. Wednesday night, they rallied from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to win at Brooklyn on Paul George’s late 3-pointer. George was sensational against the Nets, scoring 25 of his 47 points in the final 12 minutes.
Russell Westbrook had another triple double against Brooklyn, raising his season averages to 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10 assists. It’s amazing to think he could AVERAGE a triple-double for the third year in a row, and in the history of the league only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was able to do it even once.
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan will go with a two point guard lineup at times, featuring Westbrook and speedy Dennis Schroder. The Thunder were able to get Schroder from Atlanta in the Carmelo Anthony salary dump, and the move has paid big dividends, especially considering defensive stopper Andre Roberson had a setback in his injury rehab and is out indefinitely.
Horace Grant’s nephew Jerami is now starting in Anthony’s old spot at power forward and he provides the Thunder with more athleticism and defense. Second-year pro Terrance Ferguson has moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard for Roberson, with Schroder leading a second unit that includes Alex Abrines, Nerlens Noel and Patrick Patterson.
And, let’s not forget about the man in the middle, New Zealand native Steven Adams. Adams is one of the league’s strongest big men and will provide a unique challenge for Bulls’ rookie Wendell Carter Jr. It’s been a crash course on life in the NBA for the 19-year-old Carter, and that will continue with the physical play in the paint he can expect from Adams, who’s shooting nearly 60 percent from the field while averaging 14.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
So, what can the Bulls do to slow down one of the league’s best teams?
1. Make Westbrook a jump shooter. If the former league MVP has one weakness, it’s his insistence on trying to prove to everyone he’s a good long-range shooter. For the season, Westbrook is only making 22 percent of his tries from beyond the arc, but he’ll keep firing away no matter how many he might have missed on a given night. The Bulls need to play off him in half-court sets and make him prove he can make some 3’s.
2. Use Markkanen in the post. Neither Grant nor George have the size to match up with the 7-foot Finn in the post, so given the newfound emphasis on half-court execution, the Bulls’ guards have to get the ball to Markkanen when he’s isolated 1-on-1 down low. Plus, the second-year power forward has to demand the ball when he realizes he has a match-up he can exploit.
3. Play at a favorable pace. Boylen talked about playing at a slower pace initially to force opposing teams to defend for all 24 seconds on the shot clock. The new coach says he learned that “road dog” mentality from Gregg Popovich when he was an assistant for Pop in San Antonio. Trying to run with Westbrook, Schroder and George will almost certainly lead to a loss, so the Bulls will need to try to keep the Thunder around 100 points (they’re averaging 111), and hope they can execute well enough to win a close game at home.
Don’t forget you can watch Friday night’s game on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Stacey King will join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and I for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center concourse (near Gate 3) at 6:30 p.m. Plus, NBC’s national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh checks in to discuss the Bulls and his latest column on how the 3-point shot is impacting the pro game.
After Stacey and Neil Funk are done calling the action, make sure to stay tuned for Boylen’s news conference and player reaction on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders.