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Bulls-Thunder matchup features battle of star tandems

Durant, Westbrook arguably the best duo in the game

POSTED: Dec 24, 2015 8:48 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Christmas Day Preview: Bulls-Thunder

NBA TV's Dennis Scott and Greg Anthony preview the Christmas Day match-up between Chicago and Oklahoma City.

The NBA in all its permutations will be on display on Christmas Day.

Across five games and more hours than most households will be able to devote, those who do tune in for parts or all of the action will see a rising solo star (Anthony Davis) and one headed toward twilight (Kobe Bryant). San Antonio and Golden State will flex their beautiful, team-heavy brands of basketball against Houston and Cleveland, respectively.

The Cavaliers are healthy again and, compared to the ensemble Spurs and Warriors, are the league's most notable version of the three-stars-are-better-than-one-or-two thinking born or at least revived when LeBron James hooked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami five years ago. These days, James' cohorts are Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, with a whole lot of pecking order to sort out between now and the postseason.

The Heat are somewhere between the ensemble approach and a Big Three Lite with Wade, Bosh and (take your pick) Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng or Goran Dragic.

Then there are the remaining four teams of the 10 in action Friday, clubs that rely to extents great or small on an NBA staple: the dynamic duo. For Oklahoma City, that means Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. For Chicago, the foe the Thunder host in a matinee (2:30 ET, on ABC), it's Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose -- or at least, it's supposed to be.

The Rockets are built around a irrepressible perimeter star in James Harden and a traditional big man in Dwight Howard. Then there's the pair in Los Angeles -- where once Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal roamed and dominated at Staples Center, the two who strike fear into opponents' hearts now belong to the Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, a sort of new-millennium John Stockton-Karl Malone with, so far, an equal number of NBA championship rings.

Christmas Day Preview: Spurs-Rockets

NBA TV's Dennis Scott and Greg Anthony preview the Christmas Day match-up between San Antonio and Houston.

Tandems used to be all the rage in the NBA but they've gone the way in some precincts of the bicycle built for two. The league tilts these days either toward the Heat's, the Cavs' and the 2008-2013 Boston Celtics' inflation of three stars vs. two or to the group tactics employed by Golden State and San Antonio. That's not to say that having two stars in their prime, complementing each other or just doubling up on the threat, is in any way a bad thing. But it doesn't seem to translate so well in June, when 1 + 1 doesn't necessarily equal a Larry O'Brien trophy.

None of the NBA's current top duos has matched or likely will match the six rings won by Chicago's Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Bryant and O'Neal's three. In fact, even some of the most historically revered tandems -- Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Stockton and Malone, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp -- came up empty in terms of championships.

If you want to gerrymander Golden State's roster to highlight Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as a twosome, well, there's one ring. But there's a difference between a boffo backcourt and a dominating duo. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe teamed up as Hall of Famers in the Knicks' backcourt from 1971-1977 but those New York teams had several formidable and selfless frontcourt stars as well.

Paul and Griffin are the most complementary of the terrific twos, working their pick-and-rolls to perfection and benefiting from Griffin's growing game and the occasionally dominant performance from big man (but non-All-Star) DeAndre Jordan. Harden and Howard appear to have as much bad mojo as they do swell skills, with Harden's ball-hogging an impediment to anyone properly serving as his partner or even sidekick.

Thunder vs. Lakers

Russell Westbrook scores 23 points, grabs 8 rebounds and dishes out 8 assists as the Thunder defeat the Lakers 120-85.

Detroit's Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have the potential to match and surpass Sacramento's Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins when it comes to little-big combinations, though neither has demonstrated any staying power yet.

Then there is Chicago's Butler and Rose, who ought to be a hybrid of Golden State's backcourt stars and OKC's nasty pair. One's a former MVP, the other is an All-Star. They're both capable of initiating offense and getting hot enough to carry a team through games, even for weeks.

But the two have taken turns more than they've meshed. Rose established himself before Butler arrived, then slipped into the background due to injuries. Meanwhile, Butler filled the Bulls' void, providing as one of the NBA's best two-way wing players what they were missing from their formerly explosive point guard.

Now that they're both in the rotation and relatively healthy, fans at United Center have seen more chafing and dysfunction than chemistry and synchronicity. Butler recently called out new bench boss Fred Hoiberg for not coaching "hard enough," with insiders suggesting he had Rose in mind as one of those cut too much slack. Rose, meanwhile, continues to get called out by pretty much everybody in Chicago for not being the player he once was, whether the surgeries themselves or a wariness of contact are to blame.

Durant and Westbrook are the best duo these days and, arguably, the best ever. When you look at their numbers in the seasons they've shared -- 28.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 3.7 apg for Durant, 27.3, 6.9 and 3.5 for Westbrook in their eight seasons as teammates -- a pretty good case can be made that they're as dangerous as, or more so than, West and Baylor. Those two Lakers greats put up similarly staggering numbers across 11 seasons together: West 27.8, 6.1 and 6.2 to Baylor's 26.7, 12.4 and 4.4

A Chicago Bulls Holiday Scrimmage

"A Chicago Bulls Holiday Scrimmage" features the team playing a scrimmage while 70 members of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras (CYSO) line the perimeter of the basketball court playing the holiday classic, "Sleigh Ride." Courtesy of Bulls.com

Those two Lakers great also won as often as Durant and Westbrook -- zero titles together. Seven times they made it to the Finals, seven times they lost (six to Boston, one to N.Y.). It wasn't until Baylor had retired, with West complemented by Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and a deeper bench, that he broke through.

Durant and Westbrook, with their lone 2012 Finals visit, continue to lead all current tandems in individual achievements (10 All-Star appearances, five scoring titles) and in speculation -- of a sibling-like rivalry, brooding resentment, competing agendas, impending separation via free agency and all sorts of counterproductive, distracting storylines. The two partners chalk up the negativity to a hungrier, click-craving media world and some bad ol' human nature that tends to build folks up only to pull them down.

As Westbrook said, according to Complex.com back in October: " When [the media] see two good guys getting along they try to find ways to see who's better and see if either can play without the other and see if the team can play without the other. To me, it's all BS."

Echoed Durant: "I feel as though people pick and choose things they want to see and kind of harp on those things instead of the great times that we've had. But that's part of it. Who cares. Just know that we get the same things done but we're different personalities. And that's OK."

They would be excellent apart but they're so much more compelling together, and that really ought to be good enough. It won't be, though, until Durant and Westbrook are good enough in tandem to get the Thunder where it wants to go.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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