Sunday December 7th, 2014

CHICAGO -- On paper, Bulls-Warriors matchups are heavyweight guard battles.

Whenever the planet’s best shooter and its most talked-about pair of knees are on the same floor, that tends to happen. Add in the two ascendant shooting guards of the moment as sidekicks and there's no discussion, right?

But as Golden State kept Chicago on its heels all night, the game was a reminder that concerned both title-caliber teams: Don’t forget about the front courts.

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Draymond Green poured in a career-high 31 points for the Warriors who improved to 17-2 and extended their winning streak to a franchise record and league best 12 games. Green drained seven threes and gave Chicago fits in the pick-and-pop game. On the other side, Pau Gasol paced his team with 22 points and 20 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double. Those were the headline-worthy performances in a back-and-forth game full of runs, where Golden State came out on top with its fast-paced, methodical attack and Chicago turned the ball over 23 times.

Don't devalue for a second the talk about Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Those guys do more than sell the jerseys. Their talent warrants every bit of recognition and their presence keys their teams’ respective championship hopes. They drive two of the league’s most high-octane offenses when in top form.

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But do take a second to appreciate the other guys. They’re far from unknown quantities, but certainly they do their jobs in the rather lengthy shadows of star guards. And for either team to get where it wants to be come June, it'll need healthy sets of bigs just as badly.

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Steve Kerr’s arrival as Golden State's coach signaled a large boost in the role for a healthy Andrew Bogut entering this year. The former No. 1 overall pick has more than answered that call, playing in every game to date, averaging 9.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 blocks. Though he doesn't score much, his presence helps the Warriors to spread the floor around him on one end and lets the other four guys switch on screens on the other. This is a guy who’s missed 155 games over the past three seasons, and there’s a whole lot hinging on his health.

Golden State also has David Lee, who has played just seven minutes this season and whose impending return will allow Kerr to play bigger lineups when necessary. It’s shouldn't be a secret that the win streak has coincided with Marreese Speights seeing more minutes and averaging 14.9 points and 6.3 boards over that stretch. Oh, and don’t forget Green, who looks poised to cash out in free agency in this summer.

“[Draymond] was OK,”Kerr joked after the game. “He’s come in and his numbers are incredible. ... His three-point shooting has added a whole new dimension. He spreads the floor. That was the big difference. ... The whole league has trouble playing against those pick-and-pops.”

The Bulls certainly did, fielding two bigs at a time all game per usual, with Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson working -- and often struggling -- to defend against Golden State’s quicker personnel. But Chicago has, atypically for a Tom Thibodeau-coached group, had recurring defensive issues as a unit all season. Its big men are certainly more heralded than the Warriors, but also just as critically if the Bulls hope to return to the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond.

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When the masses opt not to harp on the central Rose narrative, watching prolific passers Gasol and Noah mesh offensively has been a captivating subplot to this campaign. Their interplay has been brilliant in flashes and can still improve. No player will impact Chicago’s fate more than Gasol, whose signing in lieu of Carmelo Anthony returning to New York (if you buy that he was this close to inking with the team), has given the Bulls much-needed steady production. It has also allowed Butler to fully break out as a two-way agent of havoc, a twist few could have predicted to this degree.

Noah has battled foot injuries throughout his career, underwent off-season knee surgery and entered Saturday as questionable with a banged-up ankle. Gibson returned from a sprained ankle of his own, logging valuable minutes and looking generally spry. Rookie Nikola Mirotic proved his viability as a rotation player in Gibson’s absence, which has to be a major confidence builder for the organization as a whole. Still, keeping all four bigs healthy will be critical, particularly as Rose continues to work out his own kinks. He passed the ball well, but his shooting issues continued with a 2-11 showing.

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Though there’s a degree of postseason security given their talent level and the relative struggles around the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have dropped their last three games at home, dating back before a seven-game November road trip. Keeping their guys healthy and in rhythm, not only in the spotlight but in practice, as Thibodeau noted after the game, will be crucial.

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“We definitely have to turn it around,” Gasol said. “It is becoming an issue. It is not good to lose at home. Your home court has to be a fortress. Teams should be afraid coming to play here, and know that they are going to have a long night.”

It’s way too early to call this matchup a Finals preview, but with two of the league’s most high-octane attacks, odds are we’ll see a lot of Golden State and Chicago over the course of the next several months, thankfully so. While watching, keep an eye on Rose’s health, enjoy Curry and Thompson’s long-range onslaught and savor Butler’s surprising All-Star-quality run. Just don’t forget about the other guys doing the dirty work down low. 

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