DEERFIELD, Ill. -- As much as Tom Thibodeau may not want his players to admit it, there's no doubt when you hear them speak that Friday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers means a little more to them.
It's not hard to understand why. The Lakers are the defending champions, they already beat the Bulls once, and the game will serve as a measuring stick as to where they stand now that Carlos Boozer has returned.
"It's exciting," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after practice on Thursday. "You're playing against the best. I always have a lot of respect for Phil Jackson. Being able to play against that team is always special."
That sentiment may go against Thibodeau's "every game counts the same" mentality, but it's hard to fault the players for being a little more amped up.
"Every time a team like the Lakers comes into town, every team brings their A-game," Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer said. "It's an atmosphere about it that makes you enjoy playing the game of basketball, and I think our team's excited about it, the coaching staff's excited about it and hopefully, our fans will be excited about it as well."
Brewer and his teammates realize that if they truly want to start making a name for themselves around the league, they will have to start knocking off teams like the Lakers.
"Every time you play a team that's going to be a playoff and championship contender, you want to go out and there and play well and kind of measure yourself, measure your team," Brewer said. "You always want to go out there and play well and have a good showing. I remember when we played against Orlando [last week], we didn't play well. I think we were all down on ourselves because we know we were a better team than that. You always want to play good against teams like that because potentially you could face those guys in the playoffs."
Defending Kobe: Of course, the biggest issue any team faces when trying to beat the Lakers is trying to slow down Kobe Bryant. The Bulls did a relatively good job of that when the two teams played in L.A. last month, but Thibodeau is obviously still concerned.
"He's seen just about every type of defense there is, and he doesn't force things," Thibodeau said. "He'll read, he'll make plays, he'll also read how it's going for him. If he's not shooting well, he'll become more of a playmaker. If he is shooting well, he'll be more aggressive late. He's obviously one of the all-time greats, so you have to keep pressure on him at all times."
To that point, Thibodeau plans to rotate several players toward Kobe on defense.
"With Kobe, you can't give him a steady diet of any one thing," he said. "Different guys, Keith [Bogans] will be on him, Ronnie will be on him, Lu [Luol Deng] will be on him. You have to give him different looks. You got to do so without disregarding the others. They got a bunch of guys that can really hurt you if you over-commit to your help. Shannon Brown is playing extremely well for them, of course, [Derek] Fisher. They put a lot of pressure [on you]. You have to have a multiple effort mentality. Be able to get in, get out, cover the line and rebound."
Having had the challenge of guarding Bryant before, Deng knows what he wants to do.
"Just make his shots tough," he said. "Don't get me wrong, Kobe's a great player, but the NBA got a lot of great players. Any night, someone could score 50 on you. I think the key is just make every play tough. He's going to hit some tough shots and the crowd is going to react to it. As a defender you just got to make sure it's another tough shot. And you live with it."
Noah respects his NYC brethren: Having spent many of his formative years in New York City, Joakim Noah has always had respect for fellow players from the area. That's one of the reason he always enjoys facing the Lakers, now that both Lamar Odom and Ron Artest are on the team.
"I used to play on Lamar Odom's AAU team," Noah said. "So I remember being a kid and going to L.A. when he was with the Clippers, and he would have barbecues for us and stuff like that. Those guys are obviously pretty big in the community in New York and have a lot of respect back home."
"Ron Artest, he plays in every street tournament ever," Noah said. "In the summertime, he'll play like in three, four games a day. And he doesn't care. I respect that. I think that's kind of cool. They guy's making a living playing in the NBA, but he doesn't want to miss a game in Dyckman [Park] in the 'hood. Not a lot of people do that, some people think that's crazy. I think it's kind of cool. It shows his love for the game. The guy loves basketball."
Jackson makes his mark: Speaking of respect, it came across clearly as the Bulls players and coaches spoke of Jackson.
"He's obviously a great coach," Thibodeau said. "To win the way he's won over such a long period of time is a testament to his ability. I think he gets his team to play very hard, they play smart, they play unselfishly, they execute, and he coaches hard. He's had great players, and he coaches those players extremely hard.
When asked which team Jackson would be most identified with, Los Angeles or Chicago, Noah was non-committal.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I think it depends where you are. I'm sure if you're on the West Coast, [you probably think] L.A. If you're around this area, probably Chicago. At the end of the day, all his accomplishments, people will remember him for the good memories he left behind."
As for whether or not this will be Jackson's final game in the United Center, Noah said: "I feel like he does that a lot. Every year he's always saying he's going to retire. But for some reason he always comes back. I think it's a smart thing to try to get his contract. He's smart with that kind of stuff. You never know, I don't know."
Bogans out as starter? After Thibodeau sat Bogans to begin the second half Wednesday night in favor of Brewer, there was speculation that he may be making a more concrete change to the starting lineup in the future. Thibodeau said that wasn't the case.
"I thought we got off to really good start," Thibodeau said. "Keith got hung up on a screen, and I thought he hurt his shoulder, that's why I took him out. I like the way the rotation's working. Keith has done a number of good things for us. We got off, in the first quarter, to a very good start. Ronnie came in and played extremely well and Kyle finished the game well. So I like the way it's working out."