The Pick: Thunder 108-99
If plans go right for both of these teams, this will be the least important of their battles this season, as they both have aspirations of representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this season. Both of these teams rank among the elite and have an MVP candidate, but the schedule leading up to this meeting favors the home team in a big way. The Clippers played a hard fought game last night in Minnesota while the Thunder haven’t played since Monday and have been able to rest at home since a game in Milwaukee on Saturday.
Chris Paul notched his 12th straight point/assist double-double last night, breaking the NBA record for such double-doubles to open a season, and will probably extend that streak tonight. That being said, OKC has a much better defensive plan when it comes to guarding the Clippers stud (whether it is Russell Westbrook or Thabo Sefolosha) than the Clippers do when it comes to guarding Kevin Durant (Jared Dudley? Matt Barnes?). Even if you think Paul can cancel Durant out, the fact that Oklahoma City leads the league in rebounding should prove to be enough of an advantage to help them ice this game down the stretch. Let’s take that even one step further: if you think the athletic front line of Lob City can bang the boards with that of the Thunder, what happens when they get wrapped up? The two leading rebounders on LA are shooting 54 percent from the free throw line while the Thunder duo is connecting on 88 percent.
While neither one of these teams makes a habit out of playing top shelf defense, the Thunder have shown the potential early in this season. Surprisingly enough, they rank sixth in all of basketball in FG% against (43.6 percent), an impressive mark and a big time edge over tonight’s opponent who ranks 24th (46.2 percent)
Fun Fact: We all know Durant is an elite talent, but did you know that he leads the Thunder in defensive rebounding, steals, and assists in addition to his 32 points a night when playing at home this season.
The Pick: Bulls 98-91
The Bulls are flat out the better team, and while I understand the train of thought that they won’t peak until the postseason, that doesn’t mean that aren’t a very good basketball team right now. They won their last five games by an average score of 97-82, and that is with Derrick Rose playing at an MVP level (his 9.3 PER ties him for eighth best … on his team). He has looked a bit more comfortable of late, however, as he has handed out 16 assists as compared to only three turnovers in his last three games after recording 20 dimes and 25 turnovers in his first five games of the season.
Jimmy Butler is going to miss this game, but Kirk Hinrich proved last season that he is more than capable of playing major minutes at an effective level. The difference maker in this game for me is that the Bulls are a rare team (potentially the only team) that has a player who can combat the energy of Kenneth Faried. Joakim Noah does all of the dirty work and is a big reason why Chicago should be able to limit the impact of the Nuggets excellence on the glass (second best rebounding team in basketball with nearly 47 boards a night).
Ty Lawson is lightning fast, but he figures to have as much, if not more, trouble guarding Rose than the Bulls (probably a combination of Rose and Hinrich) do defending him. If the impact of Lawson is limited and Noah can continue to offer essentially exactly what Faried does, where does the Nuggets production come from? I understand that Wilson Chandler is off to a nice start and that J.J. Hickson has been playing at a high level, but the Nuggets count on 100-plus points, and I’m not sure they get there tonight.
When push comes to shove, I trust the Bulls 24th ranked offense more than I trust the Nuggets 28th ranked defense.
Fun Fact: The Bulls are the fourth best rebounding team in the league (46 boards per night), yet they’ve had a player record a game high in rebounds only once in their last eight games.