TIME: 08:00 P.M. EST
VENUE: Ford Center
The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder were No. 8 seeds in last season’s playoffs, where neither proved to be a pushover against their respective conference’s top team.
Sneaking into the postseason isn’t the goal this time.
An offseason of building around All-Star Derrick Rose has the Bulls looking like a Central Division contender heading into Wednesday night’s opener in Oklahoma City, where the only significant change around scoring champion Kevin Durant is the Thunder’s soaring expectations.
Oklahoma City (50-32) made an impressive jump from its first season after moving from Seattle, increasing its win total from 23 and securing the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004-05.
That coincided with Durant’s transition from young player on the rise to superstar. He averaged 30.1 points to win the scoring title, finished second behind LeBron James in the MVP voting and led his team to within a last-second tip-in of forcing a Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
“I think we have confidence but we still know that last year is over with,” said Durant, who announced via Twitter that he signed a five-year, $86 million extension July 7.
“We know that we had a good year, we made it to the playoffs, but this year we know that we’ve got to start back at square one. We’ve got to work hard every day to get better, continue to fight every day and work together as a team and continue to be one group.”
Durant was held to 25.0 points per game and 35.0 percent shooting against the Lakers, but had an offseason to envy. He led the United States to its first gold medal at the world championships since 1994, winning tournament MVP honors after averaging 22.8 points.
Durant’s Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook averaged 9.1 points during the tournament, and looks poised to build on a season in which he averaged 16.1 points and 8.0 assists in starting all 82 games.
Westbrook and small forward Jeff Green give Durant some excellent secondary threats, while general manager Sam Presti’s quiet offseason saw him beef up his backcourt depth by adding Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson and Royal Ivey.
The Thunder added Kansas center Cole Aldrich in a draft-day trade as well, but Coach of the Year Scott Brooks knows his team’s chances of making a leap in the Western Conference start and end with Durant.
“He really thinks of himself as a guy that just has to work extremely hard to make a team,” Brooks said. “He has that mentality, and that’s what champions are made of.”
Joining Durant and Westbrook on the gold-medal team was Rose, who made a big leap last season by increasing his scoring average from 16.8 to 20.8.
For the second straight season, though, the Bulls (41-41) finished with as many losses as wins. After giving Boston a huge scare in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, they were competitive but only managed to take one game from top-seeded Cleveland despite Rose averaging 26.8 points.
Getting rid of oft-criticized coach Vinny Del Negro and hiring Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was only the beginning of a busy offseason. Chicago didn’t land James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, but signed eight other free agents to overhaul the team around Rose and Joakim Noah, who signed an extension in early October.
The biggest addition was power forward Carlos Boozer, and the Bulls weren’t done raiding Utah’s roster. Chicago also signed Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver before rounding out its roster with guards C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans, forwards Brian Scalabrine, Kurt Thomas and Turkish center Omer Asik.
“It (is) exciting that the new players are good players,” Rose said. “They’re not selfish. They can definitely help my game. They’re older than I am, so they know the NBA game better than me.”
Thibodeau should help as well. The assistant was coach Doc Rivers’ defensive guru in Boston, and having the disruptive Noah in the middle is a good place to start.
Rose will be joined by Bogans in the starting backcourt with Luol Deng at small forward, but Boozer won’t be joining Noah in the frontcourt for a while. The two-time All-Star tripped over a bag and broke a bone in his right hand earlier this month, an injury that’s expected to keep him out until December.
Taj Gibson, who averaged 9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds as a rookie, will start in his place.
“You hate to lose a guy like that, but it’s also part of the NBA,” Thibodeau said. “You have injuries, but we have good depth.”
The teams split four meetings the past two seasons, with the road team winning each time. Rose averaged 25.5 points in the two victories at Oklahoma City.
Here’s a look back at my first ever YouTube video that I filmed at the NBA All-Star game two years ago.