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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau follows his script when he speaks to the media every day.
He doesn't want to give reporters much insight into the Bulls' game plan, he doesn't want to disclose whether an injured player will play, and he certainly doesn't want to acknowledge that one particular game is bigger than any other. In Thibodeau's world, at least publicly, every game counts the same.
That's why it was interesting to hear the veteran coach break character, albeit in a very small way, Saturday afternoon, when asked whether some regular-season games were bigger than others in advance of his team's showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
|The Bulls will have their hands full with MVP candidate Kevin Durant on Sunday.|
"For us it's the next game, but it's a good test," Thibodeau said. "They're tough; you're going to be tested in every way imaginable. Your transition defense, your catch-and-shoot defense, your low-post defense, your rebounding, your offensive execution. You have to play 48 minutes against them. So we have to come with the right mindset."
The mindset is this, and it's definitely one Thibodeau is preaching to his players: The Thunder are atop the Western Conference, a team the Bulls may see in the NBA Finals if they get there. While Thibodeau doesn't subscribe to the theory of measuring-stick games, that's exactly what this game is, and his players know it.
"It's a big game," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after Friday night's win over the Detroit Pistons. "It's going to be exciting. We want to play against the best. So they're a great team, we think we're a great team and let's get it poppin'."
In order for the Bulls to pick up a win, especially without Derrick Rose, who is expected to miss his 10th consecutive game because of a groin injury, Thibodeau knows his team must find a way to at least slow down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
"Great players, you've just got to try and make them work for their points," Thibodeau said. "They're going to score. We've got to make them play in a crowd, try to get our defense set, we've got to rebound the ball, we've got to challenge shots. With those type of players, you could defend the play perfectly and challenge the shot and they still have the ability to make. But we have to have the determination to make them work and tie our defense together, and then offensively we've got to take care of the ball. If you turn the ball over against them, they score very quickly in transition, and that usually is what gets them going."
Rose trains in the summer with both Durant and Westbrook, so he knows firsthand how difficult it is to guard them.
"West is a challenge, period," Rose said. "Against anybody, where he's very aggressive. He's one of the leaders on that team, young leaders on that team that's playing good basketball right now. They're moving the ball great."
As for Durant, Rose reiterated that he believed the young forward should be the NBA's MVP this season.
"He's good, man," Rose said. "He's playing good basketball right now, shooting the ball great. MVP right now in my eyes, where he's one of the leaders on that team that's dominating the league at a young age and he deserves it."
No matter who is on the floor, Thibodeau and his team know it will be a challenge to pick up a win in Oklahoma City, but it's a challenge they are looking forward to. When Thibodeau talks about the success the Thunder have had, it sounds a little like he's speaking about his own team, at least in terms of how badly they want to win a title this season.
"Each year I think [Westbrook has] gotten better and better, as has Durant," Thibodeau said. "And they have a number of players on their team that have done the same thing. [Serge] Ibaka has really stepped it up, [James] Harden, to me, he's an All-Star coming off the bench. I had [Kendrick] Perkins in Boston. Perkins is an all-league defender. So that team is very well put together. They're deep, they play hard and they play unselfishly, their defense has improved. So there's not much they don't have -- and they're hungry."