Coming off their own version of a holiday break, the Brooklyn Nets (6-8) welcome in the Central Division-leading Chicago Bulls (10-6) for an afternoon matinee, at 3:00 P.M. today at Barclays Center.
The Nets play only their second game in eight days, a rare respite from the usually chaotic NBA slate of games. The Bulls are coming off a 109-102 victory in Boston on Friday, led by 21 points from the ailing former MVP Derrick Rose. The oft-injured point guard has suffered from a strained hamstring the past two games after missing time earlier the season with ankle injuries. Rose, who hasn’t played against the Nets since they were in New Jersey, says he feels good and should be able to play today.
The same cannot be said for Taj Gibson, who will be out today with the same ankle injury that has kept him sidelined the previous three games. The 6’9″ power forward has given the Nets fits since coming into the league in 2009: he’s averaged 11.9 points per game against New Jersey/Brooklyn, his highest against any opponent.
Gibson’s absence will give the Nets’ frontcourt some relief, but the Bulls will draw from their roster depth as usual to overcompensate, a crutch (no pun intended) that hasn’t let them down in recent years.
The Bulls, perennial contenders in the Eastern Conference, have the strongest assembly of talent on the roster since they won 62 games back in 2011. The additions of Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks to an already seasoned group of competitors could catapult head coach Tom Thibodeau’s team to its first trip to the NBA Finals since the Michael Jordan era. Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is playing at his usual high level, reflected by the 16-point, 14-rebound, 6-assist, 6-block performance Friday night.
That’s a bad sign for the guy he’ll be tipping off against later today. Last time Brook Lopez saw Noah on the court was Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, when the already Rose-less Bulls, also without key contributors Luol Deng (illness) and Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf), shocked the home Nets 99-93 behind 24 points and 14 rebounds from the supposedly scoring-challenged Noah en route to the second round. Lopez, despite scoring 21 points, was taken to school by Noah down the stretch. Not known for his individual scoring prowess, Noah made Lopez look foolish at times in one-on-one matchups while shooting 12-17 from the field with seven big offensive rebounds. Since then, Lopez’s defense has regressed, while Noah has become one of the better passing big men in the league (4.5 assists per game). Lionel Hollins, who’s had problems all season with interior defense, will surely prioritize defending Noah’s high-post passing along in addition to rim protection.
But wait! The task gets more daunting. Jimmy Butler, the fourth year swingman, is having a career year for Chicago and destined for All-Star status. Averaging 39 minutes per game, the impressive and effective two-way player is averaging a career-high 21.6 points per game on 49 percent shooting. Butler has admirably replaced the versatility lost by the departed Deng and may become the Pippen to Rose’s Jordan. Hyberbole? Sure… but with a cast of Rose, Butler, Gasol, Noah, Dunleavy, Gibson, and Brooks, the Bulls give the Nets another significant measuring stick to gauge themselves.
If the Nets are serious about contending this year, a Sunday matinee against a legit contender is a perfect place to start.