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Thunder show off against Bulls as a question of athleticism comes into play

Apr 1, 2012, 4:26 PM EDT

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant AP

Derrick was out, and had he played, this would have been a totally different game. Let’s just get that out in front right now. There is just no way to understate the impact that Derrick Rose, last season’s MVP, might have had on the Thunder’s 92-78 win vs. the Bulls on Sunday. This team is entirely different in its offense and in part its defense because of Rose’s singular talent.

That said?

In a game with impossible expectations, where the Thunder couldn’t impress because of the absence of Rose, they still made a statement. Because Rose playing wasn’t going to change much about the Thunder putting up 70 points with 5:25 to go in the third, about how the OKC offense took it to what many consider the best defense in the league consistently over a 48-minute stretch and took the life out of a team that seemingly has no quit in it.

For the Bulls, it shows a concern towards athleticism. Rose is a super-freak, that’s pretty obvious. But outside of maybe Noah and Taj Gibson the Bulls don’t play as a hyper-athletic team. Luol Deng has great length and speed. C.J. Watson has good burst. But overall, the Bulls are much more built for a grind-it-out approach. And that, in general, has always been the more successful model come the playoffs. It’s clear that was the intention for how the team was built. But against a team like the Thunder (or the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals), the problems multiply. In short, teams that can outrun the Bulls’ transition defense can hurt them badly.

The game was actually not out of hand until the third quarter. In that quarter, the Thunder scored 31 points on 21 shots, with a 95.2% True Shooting Percentage (factoring threes and free throws). That’s just absurd.  They held Chicago to a 49 offensive efficiency. So if the Bulls had played like they did in the third for 100 possessions, the Thunder would have given up just 49 points. That is really very bad.

Chicago can’t tout their wins over teams like Miami without Rose as a sign of their dominance and throw away this one. If they had hung, it would have sent a big message that if they had Rose, they would be right in it. As it stands, they are no longer playing the best in the league, they do need Rose, and they are struggling against hyper-athletic teams. It’s not a major problem, it’s just one game and this is still one of the baddest teams in the land.

But is there a team better equipped to down Chicago than the Thunder and Heat? Hyper-athletic superstar teams who can get to the rim and hit mid-range jumpers. If the Bulls defense engages, the Thunder can hit jumpers off the screen. Even their bigs match up well, with Ibaka and Perkins being comparable counters for Boozer and Noah. It’s just not a good thing that the two teams Chicago is likely to face in their last two series in a Finals run would be the best teams geared to beat them.

And all that said…

Derrick Rose didn’t play.

We learned Sunday that the Thunder are every bit as good as advertised, that they are playing the best ball they can right now. That Chicago is not invincible. But we haven’t learned a thing about who would win a Finals series. We’ll have to wait two more months to get that.

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