By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.
The matchup of the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder this Sunday (ABC, 1 p.m.) could be a precursor to the NBA Finals in June. The Bulls and the Thunder have the two best records in the NBA and this should be a tremendous test for each team, with or without Derrick Rose.
The Bulls are currently 42-11 with the best overall record in the NBA, also owners of the best road record at 21-6.
The Thunder are coming into the game with an impressive road win Thursday over the Lakers 102-93. The Thunder lead the Western Conference at 39-12, and this will be a difficult test for the Bulls because the Thunder own the best home record at 22-4.
Key Injury: Rose has been out since March 14 with a groin injury and there is not specific date for his return. He has missed eight games and the Bulls are 6-2 over that time without him. This game will present major problems for the Bulls without Rose due to the presence of Russell Westbrook.
Key Matchup: Bulls SG Ronnie Brewer vs. Thunder SG James Harden
Although Thabo Sefolosha starts at shooting guard for the Thunder, and James Harden comes off the bench, it is Harden who is the nightmare matchup for opponents. The Bulls have played all season with Rip Hamilton in and out of the lineup. He has only played 16 games this season. The Thunder should be able to take advantage of the Brewer matchup. Harden is the third-leading scorer for the Thunder, averaging 17.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 3.8 apg. He can create his own shot, shoot the 3-ball and get to the foul line. Brewer will be hard-pressed to defend Harden and at the other end of the floor, he does not put much pressure on opponents, scoring only 7.5 ppg on .435 shooting from the field.
Key Mismatch: Bulls PGs CJ Watson/John Lucas III vs. Thunder PG Russell Westbrook
If Rose does not play, this will be a total mismatch. Without Rose to defend Westbrook’s speed, athleticism and scoring the Bulls will be forced to bring help off other players, thus creating open shots for the Thunder. The Bulls must be exact in their transition defense, getting back and corralling Westbrook in the open court. In addition Watson/Lucas must contend with Westbrook in pick-and-roll situations where 31.4 percent of his offense is generated and isolations where 20.6 percent of his offense comes from. Westbrook is shooting almost 50 percent in his isolation possessions.
Key Stat: Fast Break Points
The Bulls rank second in points allowed, giving up only 88.9 per game. In addition they allow opponents to shoot only .427 from the field which ranks fourth in the league. Getting baskets in the half court will be difficult for the Thunder even with Durant, Westbrook and Harden on the court. The Thunder score 16.1 ppg on the break which is sixth in the NBA. They just outscored the Lakers 25-8 in fast break points on Thursday evening. It will be imperative for them to defend, rebound and score in transition versus the Bulls. It will be an interesting to see how many men the Bulls send to the glass versus keeping the floor balanced to protect against the Thunder fast break.
Key Play: Rebounding
Sunday’s matchup between these two teams could easily be decided on the glass. The Bulls are an excellent offensive rebounding team. They average 13.6 offensive rebounds per game which ranks them No. 2 in the NBA. The Thunder are a sound rebounding club, grabbing 32.7 per game which ranks No. 3 in the league. It is imperative that the Thunder frontcourt of Perkins, Ibaka and Durant locate Joakim Noah (3.7) and Taj Gibson (2.1) as well as Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Omer Asik. They must make contact and keep them off the glass or the Bulls will hurt them with offensive rebounds, and second chance points.
Key Deficiency: Turnovers
The Thunder average 16.4 turnovers per game and that number puts them at 29th in the league. The major culprits are Durant (3.7), Westbrook (3.7) and Harden (2.2). It is the team's Achilles' heel and they must make improvements before the playoffs begin. The Thunder are No. 1 in points per game (103.7) and No. 2 in both field goal percentage (.478) and 3-point field goal percentage (.384). It is imperative that the Thunder take care of the ball and get a shot every time down the floor. The Thunder may be able to get away with the high number of turnovers during the regular season, but turnovers are killers in a seven-game playoff series.