8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Oklahoma City -4.0
Injuries are the common thread in tonight’s matchup as the decimated Chicago Bulls host the Oklahoma City Thunder at the United Center, but where one falters the other is persevering in the face of overwhelming adversity. Unfortunately, the Bulls (38-13, 2nd in Central Division) represent the former in that statement, as deja vu sets in once again on this perennial contender who has been habitually hampered by a rash of injuries. For the third time in as many years former MVP Point Guard Derrick Rose suffered a serious knee injury, tearing the meniscus yet again in his right knee. In case you were wondering, folks, that is precisely the same knee that he had surgery on last season, robbing him of all but ten games of the 2013-2014 campaign. As you can imagine, a triad of major knee injuries equates to quite a bit of time on the sideline, and at this point the 26-year old is no stranger to the bench; Rose has missed a staggering 169 games to injury over the past three seasons, including the entirety of the 2012-2013 term, and with his rehab slated to take anywhere between four to six weeks, he could very well miss the remainder of this year as well. So with Tom Thibodeau holding onto hope that he will return in time for the postseason, watching the likes of both Jimmy Butler (elbow) and Taj Gibson (ankle) succumb to the injury bug must feel debilitating. While Gibson could return in about a week’s time, Butler’s ailment is much more of a pressing concern, particularly when you take into account for how much he has improved this season and what he has brought to Chicago’s offense. An impending Free Agent, the versatile Swingman has notched career-highs across the board, including points (20.2), two-point field goal percentage (49.2%), free-throw percentage (84.%), rebounds (5.9), assists (3.3), and PER (21.3). In fact, it’s Butler, not Rose, who leads this team in scoring. Now, a sprained elbow will keep him out for at least a month, while the Bulls attempt to keep pace with the rest of the Eastern Conference, particularly the Cavaliers, whom they are in nip and tuck with for first place in the Central Division.
So just how the hell is Chicago supposed to keep their head above water long enough for the cavalry to arrive for the Playoffs? After all, with just under six weeks remaining in the regular season, there is plenty of time to fall down the postseason ladder, even in the much weaker Eastern Conference. Thibodeau’s charges currently own a four-game lead over the struggling Washington Wizards for the Fourth Seed, which coincidentally is the last seed to get home court in the First Round of the Playoffs. However, the void left by Rose and Butler is rather significant; the tandem account for 38.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game, not to mention 9.2 free-throws, which translates to nearly half (45.5%) of the team’s healthy production from the charity stripe. These two are arguably the most aggressive players on the team in terms of penetrating and attacking the rim, opening things up for their teammates, not to mention doubling as lock-down perimeter defenders. On the bright side, this is a place where the Bulls have been before, so they know how adjust their play without their stars; last season with Rose missing all but ten games and Management trading Luol Deng for essentially cash and a mop (ahem, Andrew Bynum), Chicago defied the odds and rallied to the fourth-best record in the East, before being eliminated by the aforementioned Wizards in five games. With that said, there is evidence that history may not repeat itself, for thanks to the plethora of moves made in the Offseason, this club is well-prepared to carry on without their fallen stars. Pau Gasol was an absolute steal in Free Agency, with the big Spaniard averaging 18.2 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.1 blocks, looking revitalized next to the infectious Joakim Noah. And then there is Nikola Mirotic, the 6-10 Serbian Forward who has really picked up his play of late, averaging 26.0 points and 8.5 rebounds over the last two outings. In Tuesday’s inspired 97-92 victory over Washington, the Rookie led the team with twenty-three points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field (46.2%), including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc (42.9%), along with eight rebounds and a block in just over thirty minutes of action off the bench. Gasol added twenty points and ten rebounds in the win, while Aaron Brooks overcame a poor shooting night (8-of-23) to score twenty-two points and eight assists. On the night, the hosts grinded their way to an ugly triumph, shooting a poor 42.3% from the field, including 9-of-29 from three (31.0%), but dominated the glass (47-39) and got the free-throw line where they netted twenty-two of their thirty attempts (73.3%). Defensively, they proved that they can still dig deep and make life hell for their opponents, relegating the visiting Wizards to a mere 41.7% shooting from the field, including 8-of-22 from long-range (36.4%). Thibodeau may not have written the book on winning ugly, but we’ll be damned if any team in the league has done it more frequently over the past three years than these guys.
Meanwhile, the Thunder (33-27, 2nd in Northwest Division) are laughing in the face of injuries, even with one of their superstars on the mend. As reigning MVP Kevin Durant continues to rehab after a procedure on his right foot, his partner in crime, and bonafide MVP candidate Russell Westbrook has put the team on his back, making a bit of history in the process. If Oklahoma City, who is clinging to the Eighth and Final Playoff Seed in the outrageously competitive Western Conference, does in fact advance to the postseason then this current tear that Westbrook is on could very well serve as his statement case for the hallowed trophy. With Wednesday Night’s virtuoso performance of forty-nine points, sixteen rebounds, and ten assists, the explosive Point Guard recorded his fourth Triple-Double in as many games, becoming just the second player in the last forty years to accomplish that feat, with other two being some guy named Michael Jordan (we gest, folks). Furthermore, his consecutive forty-point Triple Doubles, puts him in rather exclusive company consisting of Jordan and Pete Maravich. In the 123-118 overtime victory over the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, he also became just the fifth player to ever total at least forty-five points, fifteen rebounds, and ten assists in a single game. Talk about putting the tam on his shoulders, aside from Westbrook the other four Thunder starters combined to account for a paltry twelve points, thirteen rebounds, and zero assists. By the way, did we fail to mention that this guy just missed a game due to a surgical procedure to repair a fractured cheek bone? Seriously, folks, he made history wearing a mask that would make the Phantom of the Opera jealous. During this particular stretch, Westbrook is averaging a ridiculous 37.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 10.5 assists. Respect, folks. If this dude isn’t the MVP, then whoever the league does give it to should vacate it out of respect.
Given the amazing historic display provided by No. 0, it’s easy to overlook that Oklahoma City still has a lot of ground to make up if they wish to get a more favorable postseason matchup in the First Round. After all, even if they get healthy in time, a Best-of-Seven Series with the league-leading Golden State Warriors is far from ideal. As we touched upon earlier, Scott Brooks and Co. can attribute their current predicament to some really poor timing on the injury front; this team got off to a terrible 5-12 start thanks to the absence of the ailing Durant and Westbrook, with the former missing the first of the campaign and the latter sidelined for all but four in that stretch. Essentially, they placed themselves behind the Eight Ball, and have been playing Catch-Up ever since. Between the two of them, the league’s most productive duo has missed a combined forty-eight games this season, and have only taken the floor together for a scant twenty-seven contests; with both suiting up, the Thunder are 18-9, without Durant they are just 15-18, and without he and Westbrook on the floor, Brooks’ charges are damn near unwatchable. Perhaps that is the reason that Management was so active at the Trade Deadline, dealing disgruntled Point Guard Reggie Jackson and the statuesque Kendrick Perkins for a solid haul consisting of D.J. Augustin, Enes Kanter, Steve Novak, and Kyle Singler, dramatically improving their Bench. Even though the sharpshooting Novak isn’t expected to return until the Playoffs due to an Appendectomy, Kanter figures to provide a significant boost in the Frontcourt, while Augustin will serve as an experienced backup behind Westbrook. Coming over from Detroit, the diminutive Augustin has averaged 10.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in six games, while the 6-11, 262 lb. Kanter has made a huge impact with 15.8 points and 10.2 rebounds in five outings since coming being acquired from Utah. These two figure to feature prominently in Brooks’ rotation once Durant returns in about a week, but the prevailing question is “has the cavalry arrived too late?”. Both the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans are hot on their heels for the last spot in the Western Conference Playoffs, with the latter trailing by just one game, while the thought of making up three games on the Defending Champion San Antonio Spurs seems like a daunting task this time of year.