New Jersey Nets v Chicago Bulls

With the Bulls, it’s about this year. And the five after that.

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This season wasn’t supposed to be about the Bulls. It was about the flash of the Heat and the intensity of the Celtics making one more run. It was about the Lakers out West. The Bulls were going to be good, no doubt, but not good enough.

Then they started defending like mad men, executing their defensive game plan better than any team in the league. Then Derrick Rose started playing like an MVP and slashing to the rim with quickness and body control that is unmatched. Then the Bulls evolved and took on the persona of their workaholic coach — they came to play every night harder than the other team.

In the end it was about them. They worked and slashed their way to the best record in the league (62-20).

And they haven’t begun to fulfill their potential. This wasn’t about just this being their season in Chicago. It was about how next year might be their year, too. And the year after that, and the one after that and….

The Bulls are now the team of the future in the NBA.

Chicago is young — Carlos Boozer is the “old man” at 29, entering his prime. Rose is 22, Luol Deng is 25, as is Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The only older guy making any significant contributions is 38-year-old Kurt Thomas.

People look at the Heat and see a team that will be good for the next several years because their core is in its prime. The Bulls are younger, with more room to improve as individuals, and they have a more well-rounded roster right now. The Heat will be contenders going forward. The Bulls are going to be right their with them.

Still, there are doubters. Certainly about this season and these upcoming playoffs. Put Chris Bosh in that group.

The argument against the Bulls goes like this — you’ve already seen their best. Chicago outworked teams during the regular season, simply played harder than everyone else. Good for the Bulls, but in the playoffs everyone is focused, everyone plays hard every game. (Well, maybe not the Lakers, but you get the idea.) Their advantages will disappear.

But if you believe defense wins championships, you have to believe the Bulls have a legitimate chance.

David Thorpe, the Executive Director of the Pro Training Center and ESPN analyst, said in an e-mail hard work alone by the Bulls was not enough. He used a football analogy to make his point.

“I think they out-execute everyone,” Thorpe said. “They remind me of the 2002 Buccaneers, Super Bowl winners (and owners of arguably as great a defense as the NFL has ever seen). … Both defenses were built around the idea that every man has a job to do on every possession, and each job changes based on what and who they are defending. That is why executing is so crucial.

“Put it this way — like football, if each player was graded on the total number of breakdowns they had for the game (beaten off dribble, not getting to their help spots fast enough, not following the schematic plan on certain actions, etc.), my guess is the Bulls players would score better than every other team. That is coaching.”

Defense and coaching are big steps toward a title. But the Bulls do have challenges ahead in these playoffs, and it’s not about the defense.

Rose is the center of everything they do on offense, and both Thorpe and the doubters (including scouts we spoke with) note that the better teams are going to start trapping him and denying him and doing everything they can to take the ball out of his hands. Indiana has a good defense (12th in the league in efficiency) and will start to execute it, but teams in the second round and beyond (Boston, Miami and Orlando) have the players to really execute it. Rose will not be able to dominate in the same way. He will be forced to pass or expend wild amounts of energy to get contested, difficult shots. He’s going to have to pass.

Other Bulls players will have to step up and make plays. We will see if they can — Boozer can score inside, but will he do it enough? Deng can by streaky, Ronnie Brewer can slash but will he get the ball, guys like Kyle Korver can shoot. But will it be enough?

What if it’s not? What if the Bulls learn they really need a better shooting guard and some more maturity as a team?

Then you can bet they will be back next year. And the year after. And the year after that.

Whether or not this season ends being about the Bulls, you can bet seasons in the near future will be.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Kevin Durant saves his best games for Thunder

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on January 18, 2017 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Here are the big takeaways from a busy night around the NBA:

1) Kevin Durant saves his best games for going against Thunder. Kevin Durant’s highest-scoring game this season was 39 points, something he broke out the first time his new Warriors team faced his old Thunder squad. That changed Wednesday night when Durant scored an incredibly efficient 40 points on 16 shots — again against the Thunder. Just in case there wasn’t enough salt rubbed in that OKC wound.

Whatever you think of his choice, Kevin Durant’s team is way better than Russell Westbrook‘s. Which we expected and was part of the reason Durant made the move — he is closer to a ring now than he was before. Part of that is obviously what Durant brings to their offense — and how efficiently he’s been doing it this season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9, his career best (for some perspective, the league average is around 52). But he’s also been bringing it on the defensive end this season, particularly of late, having a strong game against LeBron James Monday then doing well when switched onto Westbrook a couple of times in this game.

Westbrook himself had a triple-double (that’s 21 this season) in the loss… actually, it was a quadruple-double when you throw in the 10 turnovers. Westbrook wasn’t efficient, hitting 8-of-23 from the field, and when he isn’t this team struggles to win, they rely on him that much. Of course, that’s not the play everyone is talking about — it’s Zaza Pachulia with the hard foul, and then taunting Westbrook by standing over him.

When Westbrook saw that, he promised to “get his ass back.” These teams meet again in March — when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time in a Warriors’ uniform.

Bonus thing we saw: Russell Westbrook had the travel of the year (and Kemba Walker tried to top him).
Even in the NBA, this is a travel — and a funny one.

Earlier in the night, Kemba Walker got away with one almost as bad.

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2) The Sixers beat the Raptors and have now won 7-of-9.
When the run of wins from the Sixers started, it was easy to say “they are just beating other weak teams.” Then they beat the Bucks. Thursday night they beat the Raptors. Brett Brown has settled on a 10-man rotation, found lineups he likes with Joel Embiid starting (surrounded by shooters) and Nerlens Noel relieving him off the bench. Plus, the Sixers are finding their defensive identity.

Still, this all comes back to Embiid — the Sixers are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. He had 26 points — including 12-of-14 from the free throw line — plus nine rebounds against Toronto.


3) Rudy Gay is out for the season, which changes West playoff chase and trade picture.
This is bad news for the Kings, it is worse news for Rudy Gay himself — trying to drive out of the right corner Wednesday night Rudy Gay tore his left Achilles tendon (something the team announced, although it needs to be confirmed by an MRI Thursday).

Gay is done for this season and likely the start of the next one.

In the short term, that is a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances. Technically they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, but the Kings have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions this season when Gay is on the bench, and now he is on the bench for the season. He has scored 18.7 points per game, which was second-best on the team, and now that role falls to Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi (once Casspi returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks). Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings, don’t be surprised if Sacramento tries to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

It also changes the trade deadline. Gay was clear he wanted out of Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone on the trade block teams were calling about (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted what the Kings might do). Now obviously that is off the table, and the question becomes will Gay even opt out?

Kings’ Rudy Gay suffers apparent torn left Achilles tendon, would be done for season

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This not only changes the Kings dreams of making the playoffs in the West, it also alters the trade deadline and free agency.

Rudy Gay, the Kings wing and second-leading scorer, has been diagnosed with a torn left Achilles tendon, according to the team. During the third quarter of Wednesday night’s game against the Pacers, Gay drove out of the right corner and, untouched, fell to the floor hard. He had to be helped off the court by teammates.

Team doctors made the initial torn Achilles diagnosis, which will need to be confirmed by an MRI scheduled for Thursday. He would be out not only for this season but likely the start of the next one as well.

Without Gay, a lot more will fall on Matt Barnes and, once he returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks, Omri Casspi. Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings — this season the team gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court — and with that team’s playoff chances have taken a hit (they are 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers). Don’t be surprised if the Kings look to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

Gay was not happy in Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone potentially traded before the deadline (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted that). Gay averaged 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a game for the Kings, and while his game was a little old school — more isolation and midrange shots than teams prefer — he put up points. Enough that he was drawing trade interest heading toward the deadline from Oklahoma City and other squads.

That is all off the table now. At age 30, if Gay does still opt out of his contract for next season this will impact what he would make on the free market.

Zaza Pachulia lays out Russell Westbrook, stands over him (video)

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Kevin Durant playing the Thunder invites extra emotions.

Russell Westbrook felt them – in the form of a flagrant foul by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, who stood over Westbrook for emphasis.

Pachulia is really embracing his role doing the dirty work for star-studded Golden State.

Report: 76ers’ Ben Simmons sitting entire season still on table

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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That rumor No. 1 pick Ben Simmons won’t play this season?

It just won’t die.

Even after Simmons tried to quash it, even after the 76ers’ CEO outright denied it, even after Simmons returned to practice, even in an otherwise optimistic report.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

76ers rookie forward Ben Simmons could make his much-anticipated NBA debut shortly after the All-Star break, league sources told ESPN.

Barring a setback in his recovery, sources say the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft has a chance to take the hardwood near March. There still remains the possibility Simmons sits the entire season, sources said, but his situation will continue to be thoroughly evaluated throughout his comeback quest.

76ers coach Brett Brown said there’s “no chance” Simmons plays in Philadelphia’s nationally televised game against the Rockets next week. Other than that, there isn’t much clarity.

It mostly sounds as if Simmons is still too far from returning to say something definitive.