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Bulls preparing for a storm called Thunder

Chicago looks to bounce back against one of the league's most talented teams

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By Sam Smith | 11.05.2015 | 6:55 a.m.

The Thunder is coming; the Thunder is coming.

“Two of the top players in the league,” the Bulls’ version of Paul Revere, coach Fred Hoiberg, acknowledged Wednesday about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. “Those two guys against Orlando go for 48 and 41. It’s a very difficult tandem to stop. And they’ve got other weapons around them that can knock down shots. (Serge) Ibaka’s playing great basketball right now. Steven Adams has been terrific. They come off the bench with (Enes) Kanter, another big body. (Dion) Waiters is a dangerous scorer off the bench. They’ve got a lot of weapons on that team. (GM) Sam Presti’s done a terrific job of building that group up and they’ll definitely be there at the end.

“You open up with Cleveland, who’s picked to be right up there to compete for a championship, and now you get another one in Oklahoma City in the Western Conference,” warned Hoiberg. “It’s a great test, a great opportunity for our guys to come back against one of the top teams in the league after a very disappointing effort last night. Again, you hope you come out and give the effort and I’m confident our guys will.”

Arguably the most talented army of basketball players in the NBA, Durant and Westbrook’s Thunder, is marching on the Bulls Thursday in a TNT national game in the United Center. And with the Bulls coming off a 130-105 loss in Charlotte Tuesday, Hoiberg sent out the signal Wednesday in practice: See them and land on them with speed and toughness. Please.

“You look at a film and it’s never as good or as bad as you think it is,” said Hoiberg said about Tuesday’s loss. “Yesterday was as bad as I thought it was. It was ugly from start to finish. We weren’t helping each other. We weren’t trusting each other at both ends. We weren’t getting the ball moving on offense and, in turn, defensively we weren’t talking to each other and in the right positions. Some things are unexplainable in life, and yesterday I guess was one of them. It starts with a good solid practice. I thought our guys really competed. We put them in a lot of one-on-one situations. They were talking, energetic. That’s a good sign for bouncing back.”

It will have to be a very high bounce as the Bulls are facing one of the league’s most talented teams. The way the Golden State Warriors started the season they can reasonably make the claim to being the favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But many believe the Thunder with its brilliant Durant/Westbrook one-two punch is the Warriors’ biggest obstacle. Now that Durant appears healthy again after missing most of last season, the loud, rumbling, crashing noise you might hear after the pregame fireworks is the Thunder exploding, heated by the lightning in the games of the electric Durant and frenzied Westbrook.

They’re the most difficult two-some in the NBA to curtail, all due respect to Stephen Curry and whomever has passes to. Which should be quite the challenge for the Bulls after they were dominated Tuesday by Kemba Walker and Spencer Hawes.

Those days happen in life and the NBA.

Sometimes you’re the bug and all that.

It’s a bit early for statements, measuring sticks and the like with the Bulls 3-2. After all, they did defeat their principal rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers, on opening night. And the Bulls are a team with a new coach from college—as the Thunder is with Billy Donovan—trying to develop a different and faster style of play, which the Thunder is not.
Though the Thunder have had their slips after a 3-0 start with a pair of close losses, including Wednesday to Toronto. They’ll play their third in four nights Thursday. So no excuses for the Bulls about not being ready.

The Thunder’s style is very impressive: Westbrook runs to the basket about 27 times a game like his hair is on fire and Durant stands around near half court and flicks his wrist to make jump shots, arguably the best big man shooter in the history of the NBA and the best lead guard athlete in the history of the NBA now that Derrick Rose had ACL surgery.

The Bulls surely would like to win. But at this time coming off the loss in Charlotte it may be more about coming to class and giving your best. You know, they do give a lot of trophies out these days for trying hard.

OK, maybe just in youth league soccer. But the Bulls have to start again.

And speaking of those starts, that has been an issue.

Hoiberg in trying to retrain the Bulls to build toward the playoffs has changed the starting lineup, though it remains in question what will occur when Mike Dunleavy returns probably next month from back surgery. Kirk Hinrich is likely out Thursday with a toe injury.

Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell now are starting, and with the accelerated pace–at least in theory, if not on the court that often with Rose having missed basically all of preseason—the Bulls have pretty much played from behind every game.

Pau Gasol has had difficulty getting involved in the offense, and to some extent his defense has suffered playing alongside Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls starters have left with a deficit every game except for the relatively easy win over Brooklyn. Midway through the first quarter, they trailed the Cavs by six, the Pistons by nine, the Magic by three and the Hornets by 76. OK, eight. But it seemed like more.

“We’re looking at it,” acknowledged Hoiberg about the slow starts. “We’re looking, obviously, at all the different combinations and lineups. It’s obviously a very small sample size right now. We’re just a few games in. But we can’t dig ourselves a hole. Last night, we dug ourselves a deep hole and never found our way out of it, got down 18 after the first quarter, made a little bit of a run but never really threatened them. They just competed harder than us. That’s the bottom line.”

So, uh, Fred, what should they do?

“Make more baskets and get more stops.”

That’s it! I should have thought of that.

What it mostly came down to was being outhustled by the Hornets, which happens. Plus, a poor shooting Charlotte team coming in 27th in the league went absolutely unconscious with several banked in threes among their 14 for 23 on threes. As an aside, the season the NBA introduced the three the champion Lakers made 20 all season. The Hornets made 14 Tuesday. Good no one on the Lakers knew math.

Plus on Tuesday, the Hornets never lost their sting. Ouch. Even if you don’t contest jump shots, eventually teams start missing. The Hornets basically never did. The Bulls scored as many inside points for the game as Charlotte and at one time trailed by 35. Who knew Walker could shoot. And P.J. Hairston, whoever he is. Jeremy Lamb was nine of 10 and probably didn’t make nine shots in three years in Oklahoma City.

So call the loss an aberration for now as the Bulls despite not playing that well before Tuesday were one possession way from a 4-0 start. It’s good to get one of those annoying early alarm clocks going off occasionally.

“It’s all about competing, giving our best effort every night,” said Jimmy Butler, who had 26 points against the Hornets, but just one rebound and one assist, the fewest among the starters in both categories. “I feel like we didn’t do that last night. It’s over with. We’ve got a big game on Thursday. We competed extremely hard against each other (in practice), but when we go up against an opposing team we don’t compete nearly as hard. That can’t happen, so we got back to work today.’

“We weren’t even playing hard, to tell you the truth,” said Butler. “Our effort was down; we weren’t picking the ball up (defensively) .Our point guards and myself; if the five (center) brought it up the court, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have picked him up at halfcourt, either. We’ve got to get back to that, pick up, guard the ball. You can’t really coach effort. You go out there, you guard, you rebound, you do all the little things. That’s what effort is all about. You either want to do it or you don’t.

“When it comes to competing you can never lose sight of how hard you have to compete in this league,” reminded Butler. “Every team has a team full of top-tier guys. NBA rosters, night in and night out, you can be beat by anybody.’’

And then there’s Westbrook and Durant.

Rarely has any team had two players with that explosive scoring ability.

So which one does Butler, the Bulls’ best defender, take?

“I’ve got to cover one of them, right?” Butler said with a laugh. “So it really doesn’t matter. Either one of them can score 40, so I’ve got to guard one of them. I don’t know who yet. I’ve got a lot of film I’ve got to study, so we’ll find out. Durant’s good because he can score the ball in multiple varieties of ways. He can handle the ball, get his teammates involved.”

Butler then let out a big sigh.

I volunteered my advice to Hoiberg, but he surprisingly said he would work on it with his staff.

But if it were up to me, I’d put Butler on Westbrook. It’s the old Phil Jackson specialty of attacking the primary ball handler. Durant handles the ball a lot, so it’s not that simple like when Jackson did it against Magic Johnson or Mark Price. But as good as Durant is, Westbrook really makes them go. Well, at least makes himself go. It’s a challenge equal to defending Stephen Curry. The ideal is to try to pick up Westbrook toward midcourt and not let him get deep and make a play. That was a primary flaw for the Bulls Tuesday among many. Much easier said than done; much, much easier. I’d play Tony Snell on Durant. Snell hasn’t been very good this season, but he has the requisites to at least face off against Durant with long arms and quickness. Snell usually plays better on defense. But it’s a problem when the Bulls go to the bench. Taj Gibson? Bobby Portis? Which is probably too much to ask of a rookie just having played his first 10 NBA minutes.

Maybe Mirotic on Durant because of Mirotic’s size? Yes, a seven-foot small forward. Finally, the NBA is ready for Brad Sellers. Maybe Gibson on Ibaka? But Hoiberg said he had no plans to change the starting lineup. But, hey, that was Wednesday.

Durant is basically a seven footer who is best 30 feet from the basket. He’s the proverbial guy whose range is limited only by his imagination. You’re not defending him with guards.

“Two guys are going to have two really tough matchups, but that’s what team defense is for,” said Butler. “You’ve got to be there ready to help. We worked on that today. Then we’ll have to get the best efforts out of probably myself and Derrick, and even better efforts from our help defense.’’

So I play Rose on Andre Roberson, Gasol on Steven Adams and Mirotic on Serge Ibaka. Unless Gibson starts for Snell. The Thunder will bring off the bench old buddy D.J. Augustin, who has shot well as we know he can. The Bulls have enough mini guards to play him. There’s Waiters, another shooter in the J.R. Smith mentality and offense oriented big man Kanter.

They’re also going to push the ball like the Bulls have talked about, but how the Hornets did against them. The Bulls words thus far this season have moved with greater alacrity than their feet.

Still, it all revolves around the duo who cannot be defended, Westbrook and Durant. But if you come to compete they can be controlled. As the Raptors showed Wednesday night.

This Bulls group likely will produce a better effort Thursday. It’s not always enough against great talent.

“I don’t know if we put our head between our legs once we got down big, but we never climbed out of it,” Hoiberg said about the Charlotte loss. “That was the disappointing thing; we just didn’t have that fight to try to get ourselves back into the game. I remember we lost to Phoenix by 50 as a player one time, and we had a good team. You’ve got to find a way to flush it down the toilet and bounce back. A good film session and practice is a good step in that direction.”

But the Thunder is coming, the Thunder is coming.

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