The big question for the night is whether or not this will be the debut of Carlos Boozer for the Bulls. Tom Thibodeau seems to think so after yesterday's practice:
"He looked good, said he didn't have any problems," Thibodeau
said. "His conditioning is really good and he did a good job in
practice. ... I can't foresee any problems at this point. As long as
he's comfortable, we're ready to get started."
If Boozer does return, the Bulls will face the challenge of integrating a significant new offensive piece against one of the premier defensive teams in the league. However, Boozer's a piece that would help considerably against the Magic.
UPDATE - Boozer is playing tonight
Let's face it, he's likely to beast Rashard Lewis who wants no part of inside play, and had a big size advantage against Brandon Bass. He'd take Dwight Howard outside if Howard were to try and contain him and even if he doesn't rein jumpers down on Howard from the perimeter the value of pulling him out of the paint would be immense.
The only question would be whether Boozer has learned enough from watching and two practices to find a flow with the rest of the team offensively and defensively, but this isn't rocket science. Boozer's been playing basketball with an elite PG for a long time. He knows how to run a pick and roll, he knows how to score in isolation.
Is this a statement game for the Bulls? In some ways yes, in some ways no. They've been getting a lot of love lately, far more than their record warrants, for their high level of play. However, now they have to go up against their competition in the East. I'd view it as a statement game, but if Boozer doesn't play, there's the fall back excuse of "what if he did" and if he does play then there's the fall back excuse of "they need time to build chemistry". In that sense, there's straight forward rationalizations for a loss either way, not that the players would buy into either or use them.
Keys to the game
Help on Howard and foul early, foul often
I don't often advocate double team a premier player constantly, nor do I often advocate fouling the hell out of someone. However against Howard, I advocate both. The Magic can kill you from the perimeter, but I'd at least make them try. Joakim Noah is one of the most valuable defenders in the league, but he's valuable for his ability to defend a pick and roll and play a PG on a switch not for his ability to stuff Dwight Howard one on one.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it will take a team to slow down Dwight Howard. My strategy would be this:
1: Double team from a position that does not allow him to pass out to the strong side with an immediate repost. This means the double team has to come from the weakside or the center. The goal is to force him to make a difficult pass after trapping him.
2: Foul him hard on the arms, so that he's not getting shots up when you foul him. The goal with the foul is to make him split a pair from the line, and once beaten take the hard foul on the arms and don't let him fight up a shot (easier said than done).
Thibodeau's done an outstanding job of designing defenses to stop a one man show though, so I think he'll have something special in store for Dwight.
Run out on the corners
Stan Van Gundy once gave a long speech about how the long two pointer is the worst shot in basketball. It's inefficient and not that easy. That there is a whole school of media people who decry the loss of the mid range game. Whether you agree with him or not, you can be sure the Magic won't be shooting long twos.
Stan also knows the key to great three point shooting is to get your threes from the corner, they're shorter and easier, and if you have a player defending that shot he's covering less of the rest of the court. As such, the Magic are going to look to get the ball in to Howard and find threes from the corners, so be prepared to run out at the corners and stop them in their tracks.
Almost everyone on the floor outside of Howard can shoot threes for the Magic, so you have to honor everyone. Even guys with low shooting percentages this year from the three point line are typically solid. If I'm going to let one guy shoot threes on me it's probably Jameer Nelson though.
Drive into Howard not away from him
Both times Rose got hurt against Howard he was trying to avoid him. Instead, force contact on him and put him in foul trouble. Derrick is starting to get the calls, and if he gets bumped going into him, he's not as likely to end up on his back as when he gets bumped while fading away and already tilting backwards.
Howard's a great player, but he's a guy who tends to get in foul trouble because he contests so many players. Don't be afraid of him, because going at him consistently is likely to get him off the floor.
Play smart basketball
Sure, it's the captain obvious statement of the year. Sure it applies to every game. However, you want to beat elite teams, take care of the basketball, rebound the basketball. The Magic are an efficient offensive and defensive team. You can't afford to give them extra opportunities.
I hope we get to see Boozer play, and I hope the integration process moves on quickly. I'd say the Bulls are probably slight underdogs in the game, but they certainly have every chance in the world to win.
Side note, for anyone loving it live tonight, it's Joakim Noah bobble head night. If you want one of these bobbleheads, you NEED to get to the game when the gates open at 5:30. They may say they give out 10,000 or whatever, but in reality, 6-7000 are already mailed to season ticket holders, there will be very few available, and they'll likely be gone in about 5-10 minutes after the gates open.