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Monday, March 17, 2014
Bulls feel good in advance of Thunder

By Doug Padilla

CHICAGO -- For all the criticism that coach Tom Thibodeau gets for running his players into the ground with heavy playing time, the Chicago Bulls are about as healthy as they can hope to be at this time of the season.

The Bulls are healthy as they try to slow down Kevin Durant, the NBA's leading scorer who has posted at least 25 points in 32 straight games.
Of course, Derrick Rose is still lost for the season because of a knee injury, and that's what led to the reduced expectations the team is now exceeding. But of the players Thibodeau has had available for most of the season, so far they have been able to withstand the wear and tear of a long year.

Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich, who started the season with nagging issues, are rolling now, and in Noah's case, he is a long way from the player who seemed to disappoint Thibodeau early because his game shape was nowhere were it needed to be in the opening month.

It isn't like everybody is fresh. That just doesn't happen in the middle of March. And there are some known dents and bruises such as Jimmy Butler's sore ribs and Mike Dunleavy's stitches over his right eye and the subsequent bruising that resulted from an elbow on Thursday against the Houston Rockets.

"Going down the stretch, you want to be playing your best and as healthy as you can be," Thibodeau said. "At this time of the year, after 60 games in this league, most guys are nicked up. If you're playing hard, you're nicked up."

Hard play is a Thibodeau signature, especially on defense. And yet another extreme test for their energy reserves arrives Monday night with a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. If there is one thing the Bulls know how to do, it's to raise their game when facing one of the top teams in the league.

It might not have happened last week when the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Spurs were in town and the Bulls fell into a deep hole before ending the night with a defeat that was at least under double digits. But that loss came on the heels of a high-energy victory over the Miami Heat.

After a hard-fought victory over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, the Bulls had a light practice Sunday and should be ready for another high-energy effort against the Thunder, the No. 2 team in the West.

As the anchor of the Bulls' defense, Noah knows the team is in for a big challenge against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co., who were upended at home by the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

"Yeah, Kevin Durant is very impressive," Noah said. "He's the best scorer in the game. They didn't play very well [Sunday] so you know we're going to get their best tonight. That's what good teams do, they bounce back, and we're definitely going to get their best tonight."

Durant, who has scored at least 25 points in 32 consecutive games, will be Butler's problem on the perimeter, but the Bulls know they will have to run multiple defenders toward the NBA's leading scorer at 31.8 points per game.

"You have to," Thibodeau said. "The problem lies in you not overcommitting so you leave everyone else open. I think those guys are so hard to guard individually. You have to try to make them work for their points and know you can defend them perfectly and they still can score.

"We'll try to give him some different looks, but he's at the point in his career where there's nothing he hasn't seen. And he has the ability to get a shot off in so many different ways. And then you also look at his ability to pass. He can really hurt you with the pass as well. If you're running multiple defenders at him and the ball is shot, you're going to be vulnerable on the board for the second shot. The way they score the ball, they're hard to guard."

While Noah has been getting support for the NBA's defensive player of the year award, even he wouldn't want to go at Durant alone.

"It's going to take our whole team to try to contain this guy," Noah said. "He can really score, and it's going to take a great effort to try and slow him down a little."

At the very least, the Bulls enter the game knowing they aren't limited because of nagging injuries.