Bulls have no lightning to match the Thunder


Jan 5

In the end, the Bulls just didn’t have quite enough in the battle of the 2007 and 2008 draft classes.

No. 2 pick from 2007 Kevin Durant had 25 points and eight rebounds and No. 4 pick from 2008 Russell Westbrook had 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists while No. 9 pick from 2007 Joakim Noah had 14 points and 14 rebounds while No. 1 pick from 2008 Derrick Rose had 19 points and seven assists.

The result was a 98-85 Oklahoma City win as the developing young Thunder moved to 19-15 while the hoping-to-reemerge Bulls fell to 14-18.

“It’s fun playing against your friends,” said Durant, whose streak of 30-point scoring games was stopped at seven. “In the summertime we can say we won the game in Chicago.”

As for the wintertime in a brutal cold spell Monday, the Bulls turned colder than the lakefront in early morning with a miserable second half in which they shot a bone chilling 26.4 percent and were outscored 51-33.

“Taking too many jumpers and not attacking the basket,” observed Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “We weren’t attacking and converting like we had been. We have to get better ball movement. Too many jump shots, not enough ball movement and settled for too many jumpers. We got in that rut again.

“I thought we had some good shots. We just missed them,” added Del Negro. “We got a little stagnant in the third quarter (outscored 32-14). We did not defend very well. When we are struggling to score, we have to really buckle down defensively. They got some easy baskets on us in the third quarter that changed the complexion of the game.”

I don’t agree there were many good shots, especially in that disastrous stretch in the third quarter after Noah picked up his fourth foul. The Thunder had come back from a 52-47 halftime deficit and seemed to be gaining momentum. But the Bulls were hanging in, down 66-62 with five minutes left in the third.

There was a lot of blame to go around among the Bulls in this game, the bench miserable as John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas combined to shoot four for 20 and Rose was scoreless in the second and third quarters.

Thomas had been very good since returning from his broken left forearm as the Bulls had won four straight. But this was his first poor effort as he began to settle for long jumpers.

“He had one of those nights,” said Del Negro. “Tyrus has the ability defensively to affect the game by defending the basket and getting us out on the break. He has to realize when his shot is not there, he can still do things to help us win. No one was very productive tonight on either end of the court.”

Del Negro probably also learned a good lesson as well as he cannot take out Noah and Taj Gibson at the same time.

Noah, who was battling ferociously on the boards again, drew that fourth foul about two minutes after his third. Del Negro took him out but also removed Gibson, who also was pounding the offensive boards as the Bulls had an amazing 25-13 edge. Gibson finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in just 27 minutes, and at least he had the edge on his trade partner Thabo Sefolosha, who finished with seven points and nine rebounds.

The trade of Sefolosha netted the Bulls the draft pick they used for Gibson, a good deal all around.

But when both Noah and Gibson went out, Del Negro also substituted Salmons for Kirk Hinrich, who was moving the ball nicely with 15 points, seven assists and four steals. Del Negro also went with Thomas for Gibson and with Brad Miller for Noah the results were disastrous with that group standing around the perimeter and settling for long jump shots and no fight at the basket.

The Bulls in that time went eight straight possessions this way:

22 footer. Miss.

23 foot three. Miss.

Layup blocked.

Drive missed.

21 footer. Miss.

Fumble for turnover.

Soft crosscourt pass. Turnover.

Reverse layup attempt. Miss

By the time Luol Deng darted through from the wing to pick off that missed layup and put it back, the Bulls were trailing 76-62 and heading into the fourth quarter down 13.

Del Negro then sat Rose, as he often does, to open the fourth quarter, and the Bulls staggered to open the fourth scoring on one of the first eight possessions before Rose came back and almost carried the Bulls back into it.

He scored 11 fourth quarter points, including a run of seven of the team’s nine in a 1:54 stretch to get the Bulls back within 87-77 with five minutes left.

But Westbrook got Noah on a switch and made a jumper over him, Durant made two free throws on a run out after a Rose missed drive and Sefolosha effectively closed it with a three after Nick Collison rebounded a Durant miss.

“They hit a lot of shots,” noted Noah. “They have some great scorers in Durant and Westbrook. They spread the court and got offensive rebounds. Collison gave them energy. They picked up their intensity in the second half. They were more physical with me and Taj. But overall our energy was pretty good. We competed, so that’s a step in the right direction.”

Yeah, the Bulls should be past that good loss thing, and they seem to be for the most part. Though a game like Monday’s shows just how narrow their margin of error is. They must get at least one and moreso two players off the bench playing well. They got none this game.

It might have been a good time to take a shot with Jannero Pargo with the third quarter shooting slump, and Del Negro said he thought of using Pargo late. But he said the Bulls appeared about to get back into the game and he wanted to stick with that group. I asked Pargo if he was hurt and he said he’s still got back issues, but he can play. He says he’ll be ready when called.

Del Negro has gone regularly now with James Johnson, and it’s mostly been unproductive. OK, all the time. He does seem to be trying and I’m told works hard and looks good in practice. But you can see his confidence is shot. Del Negro got quite a bit of criticism early for not using him, so I don’t blame him for playing him now. But Johnson seems to be trying so hard when he gets in games that he just messes up constantly. He needs a stint actually playing and producing, which he could do in the D-league. I’d guess the Bulls want to keep him for insurance at forward with no other backup, though I’d try to get Pargo and even Aaron Gray in there some, assuming Gray is in shape, which it’s hard to tell as he never plays.

No, I’m not advocating Lindsey Hunter.

Things aren’t that bad.

The Bulls had a heck of first quarter and a pretty good half.

“It always sucks to lose, but I think we’re playing better basketball,” said Noah. “We play again tomorrow (Tuesday in Charlotte). There are still things we need to get better at, but we are playing with better energy right now and that’s a good thing.”

Really, that first quarter was impressive even as the Bulls had a basket taken away after the quarter ended when an instant replay review called a 24-second violation from earlier. Still, Rose was blowing by Westbrook and Noah was grabbing everything, stealing a lazy Durant pass and running out and getting fouled, executing a picture perfect pick and roll with Hinrich, then Thomas doing one just afterward with Rose, Rose attacking on drives and Noah slamming back a Rose miss.

That terrific sequence gave the Bulls a 24-12 lead, though the bench subs this time let it slip right away with Miller, Salmons and Johnson all ineffective and you were immediately feeling this could cause problems later.

The Bulls led 28-23 after one as Durant had nine with the smoothest jump shot you’ll ever see from a 6-10 guy. He’s got amazing range as well with just a flick of his wrist, and you can only imagine when he gets stronger. Durant is supermodel thin and if you can find a muscle on him it has to be overdue from the muscle lending library. It’s probably why you don’t see him in the post more despite his walking mismatch status. He’ll drive, like LeBron James in a way, less with that power but with a glide and the long strides that get him to the basket for a slam so quickly. But he’s virtually impossible to guard outside at his size and gets 25 like he did Monday and you don’t even notice.

Westbrook was the problem for the Bulls as he was slashing to the basket off pick and rolls, getting by Rose with relative ease. I’d like to have seen Hinrich on Westbrook, if only because Hinrich remains the team’s best defender against guards.

“Russell had a good offensive game,” understated Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He really attacked in the second half. He did a good job of defending and cut down on the turnovers. He is in a nice rhythm and we needed his scoring tonight. In the first half, he tried too many pinpoint passes and had turnovers. In the second half, I thought he did a much better job mixing it up and getting six assists with no turnovers.”

Westbrook is no point guard, though his assist numbers are respectable. He’ll most often hand the ball back to Durant, who makes a lot of shots. But Westbrook is strong and quick. He drove it hard at the Bulls, who had almost no basket defense with Noah and Gibson out in the third, and stepped into several jumpers.

Westbrook and Rose are represented by the same agent, work out together in the summer and both vying for a spot at guard on the USA team. Rose has gotten more publicity as Westbrook plays in the shadow of Durant, so Westbrook has been particularly motivated against Rose. I saw it in the summer in the USA tryout camp and Westbrook constantly went hard at Rose.

Players never admit that stuff, but you could see it was a game Westbrook wanted to make something of a showcase, and he did with a team high 24 shots, 10 more than Durant.

“I’m not going into every game saying, ‘I’ve got to score 30 for us to win,'” said Durant, a sure All Star this season. “I just go out there and play within the offense. We pass the ball to each other. That’s what great teams do. We’ve been riding on Russell. You’re going to have to worry about him when he’s scoring like that. He opens up a lot of things for everybody else.”

The Thunder did move the ball well and rookie James Harden benefited most from the Bulls trying to cover the middle on the drives as he stayed in the corners and was three of five on threes and scored 13 off the bench. Overall, the Thunder shot 48.8 percent and 53 percent on threes against the Bulls usually solid defense to offset those 25 offensive rebounds, 12 Bulls steals, 23 Thunder turnovers and Bulls margins in points in the paint, second chance points and fast break points.

The Bulls did what they were supposed to do to win the game except make shots, hitting 35.4 percent, and, the way I saw it, way too many bad choices on perimeter jumpers without much movement or attacking. Rose got just one free throw after 26 the last three games as Sefolosha switched onto him often in the second half and did a better job of denial than Westbrook.

“We couldn’t hit any shots,” said Rose. “It was a tough loss. About the only thing we can do is start another win streak. In the third quarter, it took us a while to get in our offense and they just started to pull away. Those (easy) shots that I usually hit. They were just coming off. I’ll get in before the game (Tuesday) and work on getting better angles off the glass.”

He better have some company.

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