Welcome to the NBA everybody. You gut out a thrilling victory in a grueling game against one of the league’s most intense, physical teams. You expend copious energy, both physical and emotional. Then you get on a plane and do it all again the next night. Of course, while the Pacers are a well-coached, defensively oriented team, they don’t hold a candle to Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls.
The Bulls are, as is their custom are sitting atop the league in defensive efficiency, allowing a cruel .93 points per possession. Yes, they’re missing a certain famous former MVP, but they still boast some guys who really like to get after it: namely, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, among others. The Bulls’ ability to pressure the ball and then recover to all five positions should you change sides of the floor is unmatched by any team the Wolves have played this year. Unless of course you count the drubbing these very Bulls put on the Wolves in the preseason.
And yes, I realize that a) that was a preseason game and so b) who cares and also that c) the Wolves were without both Nikola Pekovic and Luke Ridnour. Nevertheless, the Wolves have only intermittently been able to create offensive continuity with their guard play. Their best offensive moments have come either when the team is fluidly executing Rick Adelman’s sets or when a guard, be it Brandon Roy, J.J. Barea or Alexey Shved, has taken it upon himself to break down the opposing defense. Unfortunately, nobody disrupts offensive continuity and atomizes the five opposing offensive players as well as Chicago. And should Luke Ridnour or Shved or Roy–remember, JJ Barea will miss the game with his foot injury–attempt to attack the Bulls by himself, well that just plays into the hands of the Bulls’ swarming defense.
Adding to the problem is that the Bulls have real matchup advantages in the frontcourt, which has been the Wolves’ strength. Luol Deng vs. Andrei Kirilenko is essentially a wash; both players are long, elite defenders and crafty, efficient scorers, although Deng is asked to shoulder a much greater share of his team’s load, both on offense and in terms of minutes, than AK. But then the real problems begin. Joakim Noah is the kind of long, active center that gives Pekovic fits (observe the way that Hibbert disrupted Pek’s offensive game last night). And, recent defensive improvement notwithstanding, Derrick Williams showed very little ability to stay with Carlos Boozer in their preseason matchup.
The Wolves’ great hope here, as it has been before, just may be their bench. Dante Cunningham and Greg Stiemsma seem to me to be well equipped to take on Boozer and Noah defensively. And whether or not Cunningham can actually match Taj Gibson’s intensity (very hard to do, but I bet he can) that matchup should be pretty furious stuff, particularly if the game is close. Still, while matchups circumstances seem stacked against the Wolves, they surely seem to be oceans ahead of where they were two weeks ago. Tonight will be a great test of just how far they’ve come.