By Anthony Slater – Aslater@opubco.com - @anthonyVslater
Oklahoma City plays the Bulls in Chicago tonight, tipping at 7 p.m. on TNT. Here’s a pregame primer:
Three OKC things to watch
1. Westbrook mismatch - In years past, this cross-conference showdown provided arguably the most exciting point guard matchup in the league. Two hyper-athletic score-first speed demons with relentless energy and a stubbornness to get to the rim at all costs. But Derrick Rose’s continued health issues robbed fans of that All-Star back-and-forth last season, and they’ll get the same disappointment come Thursday. Rose is recovering from an ACL tear, not expected to return until at least January, meaning Chicago will likely start Kirk Heinrich on Westbrook, and spell him with the undersized Nate Robinson. Nice veteran players with some skill, but complete mismatches in favor of OKC.
2. Hasheem the dream - Oklahoma City’s second unit has played well in spots this season, especially in Tuesday’s blowout of Toronto. And one of the biggest (and most surprising) reasons for that is Hasheem Thabeet, the 7-foot-3 NBA bust turned capable backup center, who’s playing the best basketball of his disappointing four-year career. By adding Cole Aldrich to the Harden trade, Scott Brooks and Thunder management showed their preseason trust in Thabeet, and he’s delivered. In four games, Thabeet is yet to miss a shot (a perfect 4-4) and has blocked at least one shot in every game (six overall). Tuesday’s 10-point showing may not stand out, but for Thabeet it’s a milestone, only the fourth time he’s reached double-digits in the NBA and the first since March 22, 2010, his rookie season. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues to build off that strong play.
3. Durant’s scoring - KD’s got a big game coming. You can feel it. This four-game stretch, where he’s averaging 20.8 points per and hasn’t scored more than 23, in his lowest streak in over a year. With his track record, you know that won’t continue. Expect an offensive outburst soon, maybe even Thursday.
Three Chicago players to keep an eye on
1. Joakim Noah (center) - Even without their superstar, the Bulls find a way to remain competitive in almost any game. Much of that is related to the strong play of Tom Thibodeau’s hard-nosed defense. And at the center of that well-oiled rotating machine is Joakim Noah, the outspoken anchor who blocks a few shots and talks a lot of trash. Nothing he does is pretty (especially that hideous sideways jumper, worse-looking than Kevin Martin’s slingshot), but Noah is effective.
2. Luol Deng (small forward) - Pop quiz – Besides Derrick Rose, which Chicago Bull made the All-Star team last year? Even if I told you Luol Deng and showed you video evidence of the game, I’m still not sure you’d believe me. His game is efficient, quiet and unappealing (much like the team he plays for), but the production must be respected. Deng has averaged double-digits every season of his nine-year career, currently putting up 16 and eight rebounds. He’s underrated and has been for a while.
3. Nate Robinson (point guard) and Nazr Mohammed (center) - A couple Thunder alums lead Chicago’s second-unit. Robinson, who’s never seen an open jumper he doesn’t like, is the more productive of the pair, averaging 10 shots and 12 points in 21 minutes per game. His got a green light and itchy trigger finger as soon as he gets off the bench. Mohammed doesn’t play much (averaging only 7.5 minutes per game), but, as Thunder fans know, provides a veteran locker room presence.
Chicago is shooting 26.2 percent from three this season, worst in the NBA.