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Thunder still embarrass Bulls in version 2.0
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 2
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Cotton Fitzsimmons, the longtime NBA coach, used to stroll into the locker room after a game like the Bulls had Sunday in being dominated by the Oklahoma City Thunder 92-78.
Cotton would walk into the toilet area and flush them all, the roaring echoing throughout the quiet of his somber players. The message was clear: We played like crap, but we’ll flush this one, forget it and move on to the next meal.
For the Bulls, it should be the Houston Rockets Monday in the United Center.
“It was an embarrassing game,” agreed Kyle Korver, the only Bulls starter in double figures as he replaced Ronnie Brewer. “We got our butts kicked on ABC (national TV) Sunday. But the beauty of the NBA, and especially this season, is we play again tomorrow. Hopefully, we’ll see this team again.”
That would be the goal for the Bulls, which would mean the NBA Finals. You’d say after an outing like Sunday’s it seems unlikely, though Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton were out again, and the Miami Heat were blown out by the Boston Celtics to remain three and a half games behind Bulls in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 42-12 and Miami is 37-14 with the teams playing twice more.
That probably is the Bulls consolation for Sunday, that Miami had all its players and lost badly to the Celtics without Ray Allen. It wasn’t audible, but the Bulls cry may have been, “Miami stunk worse than we did.”
Which would be a landfill’s worth since the Bulls were awful.
They were trailing 80-51 after three quarters when Oklahoma City basically finished with their D-league affiliate of Reggie Jackson (the other one), Cole Aldrich, Lazar Haywood and Royal Ivey. John Lucas thus squeezed off 10 fourth quarter shots and four threes while Taj Gibson gathered in his misses and the final box score didn’t appear so hideous.
But no one among the Bulls was fooled about what occurred, the way Kevin Durant with 26 points and 10 rebounds and Russell Westbrook with 27 points and four steals were too big, too strong, too fast and too good for the Bulls. Serge Ibaka added five blocks and had Bulls shooters flinching as they left the arena. Kendrick Perkins didn’t do much, but he snarled and ate a canary.
“For us to lose like that is bad,” said Joakim Noah, part of a Bulls front line with Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer that was nine for 29 for 21 combined points. “We’ve got to bounce back. We couldn’t get any transition game going. We couldn’t get anything easy at the basket because they were just meeting us at the rim. They played really well, and they definitely played with more energy than we did. I’m disappointed. They were scoring in a lot of different ways. They definitely played with more energy than we did.”
These things do happen in the NBA, especially as the season drags to a close. Though it was the team with the best record and leader in the East against the team with the second best record (now 40-12 with the Finals tiebreaker over both Chicago and Miami) and leader in the West. You’d like to put on a better show. Of course, the Bulls could say the Heat lost last week in Oklahoma, also by double figures. Which at least makes sure for now the Thunder is at the top of everyone’s power ratings.
In the past eight days, the Thunder have had blowout wins over the Heat, the Lakers and the Bulls. That’s what a championship team looks like coming down the stretch, at least.
“I thought Serge was really good in the second half to start,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “His activity, Perk’s toughness down low, Kevin in the lane, Russell’s aggressiveness and Thabo (Sefolosha’s) just every opportunity he can defend, he loves to defend. He gives us that possession after possession.
I thought everybody did their part. That is what good teams do.”
And they are a good team. Really good. If they moved the ball and played more unselfishly like the Bulls they might not lose. But Westbrook and Durant don’t play like that. Durant looked like he didn’t even see Luol Deng, a very good defender, in front of him as he effortlessly shot over. He was 11 of 16. Westbrook dribbles around a lot, though not quite as much Sunday, and you’ll see Durant waving his hand wide open as the defense has to shift as Westbrook is beating everyone off the dribble. With more ball reversal Durant probably would average 40.
“Westbrook set the tone,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He beat us off the dribble. Durant hurt us catch and shoot. Then (James) Harden comes in off the bench and creates off the dribble, also. We didn’t take much away, and then they played from a lead and that’s a big advantage.”
No other Thunder starter scored in double figures, and only Harden did off the bench and he only had seven shots. No one better tell them about more movement on offense. And they are much better defensively and tougher, especially on the interior where they are huge across the front line and Durant with his arm length is a terrific defensive rebounder. They don’t attack the offensive boards much, settling to get back in transition, though they seem so self assured it’s probably more they are shocked when they miss.
Normally a high turnover and low assist team, the Thunder were so dominant and the Bulls so outclassed most of the game the Bulls never were able to put much pressure on the Thunder.
Though Thibodeau answered with the routine response the team has enough to win without Rose and Hamilton, it’s tough to see in this sort of game. Yes, the Bulls did beat Miami without them. But you don’t want to try that often.
Thibodeau said he held Hamilton out Sunday because Thibodeau doesn’t feel he can get a full read on Hamilton’s health and wants to be extra sure. The feeling is Hamilton will play Monday to avoid a back to back.
“We’ll see tomorrow (on Hamilton),” said Thibodeau. “He’s feeling pretty good. We have to play this smart. He’s rarin’ to go, champin’ at the bit. We’ll see.”
Derrick Rose chatted briefly with reporters Sunday as he left the locker room, and it was difficult to say when he’d return. Rose was asked if he’d play again this season, which seems ridiculous but worrisome, and said he would. The Bulls expect it to be much sooner than that. There’s some feeling he might give it a try Thursday against Boston. Though the consensus seems to be more one of the New York games, either Sunday or a week from Tuesday.
The Bulls are now 7-3 without Rose in this latest stretch with the groin injury and 14-6 overall when he’s been out.
“I’m running a little, lifting weights,” said Rose. “If anything, I should be stronger than ever. I’m trying to take it easy. The most I’m doing is lifting weights, stretching and trying to loosen up the scar tissue.”
Asked about getting back in playing shape with his teammates, Rose said it shouldn’t be a problem as they know each other so well and have played together a long time.
“I should not have any problems,” Rose said. “If anything, maybe it’s a blessing. The only positive the way I look at it is I’m getting my rest a little bit.”
Yes, no one can say Thibodeau is playing him too much anymore.
Though enough is enough after games like Sunday’s when the Bulls would like to have had a better showing against another elite team. It’s hardly like the Thunder didn’t respect the Bulls. But it did seem at times they were almost toying with them with the ease they were scoring. Though you can see Oklahoma City doing that often.
Although Thibodeau gave no reason for starting Korver for Brewer and said it was just right for the team now, it seemed the Bulls needed more scoring against the league’s top scoring team. Plus, Brewer had been slumping. He’d scored five points or fewer in six of the last eight games and shooting 29 percent the last four games.
The Thunder opened the game with Westbrook dashing past C.J. Watson for a layup, and then Durant going at Deng, who had a rough game with four of 13 shooting and zero assist and rebounds. That got the Thunder off to an 8-2 start as only Boozer was showing much life for the Bulls with a tough offensive rebound and strong move back up. Boozer then stripped Perkins and the Bulls got a Watson runout for a score, but the Bulls could not stop the Thunder.
“It’s concentration,” said Thibodeau. “We can’t allow teams to play to their strengths. It’s also a byproduct of our offense. They had size up front. If their defense is set you have to move their size, take the right shots, make the right plays. Then have floor balance when the ball is shot. We were penetrating and throwing wild shots up. That’s not how we play. We’re capable of doing much better and we will.”
The Thunder have lulls as they aren’t exactly the ’96 Bulls. They can fall in love with their jump shooting and let you back into the game, which seemed to be the case as the Bulls got back within 22-20. But Harden closed the first quarter with a three as the Bulls dropped into a zone briefly as the close of quarters, which Thibodeau emphasizes, was fatal for the Bulls.
The Bulls didn’t help themselves as they began falling in love with the three even though it wasn’t going with 12 in the first half. Though part of that was the presence of Ibaka at the basket and even bringing in seven footers like Nazr Mohammed. So the Bulls began settling and pulling up for jumpers, though often too quickly as Deng even shot one coming down early in the clock and with three Thunder defenders under the basket. Watson hoisted up a couple of those as well.
“They’re a long team,” said Korver “Three seven footers out there.
They had 9 or 10 blocked shots. That changed the game for us. We did not execute well. We got frustrated and played frustrated.”
And yet the Bulls had a chance.
The Thunder bench isn’t particularly good other than Harden with Derek Fisher not giving them much yet. So the Thunder began missing to open the second without Westbrook and Durant. The Bulls had a great possession with three offensive rebounds leading to a Korver jumper, and then began to climb back with Boozer and John Lucas making shots. Lucas’ three (after four misses) with 2:19 left in the first half brought the Bulls within 43-39. Noah then picked off a Perkins pass and you began to think that maybe another most unlikely win was possible, that this Bulls team was really amazing.
For about 18 seconds, anyway.
Which was about the time Lucas dribbled around, across the court, back and then into the middle, where Ibaka crushed his shot.
Sefolosha ran out for a layup. Noah then got caught with the ball and threw up one of those wild, lefty hooks. Westbrook ran down and banked one from 10 feet with the Bulls having a bad matchup with Lucas on him, and then after a Deng one on one drive went nowhere, Perkins actually made a 15 footer as Noah left him to help on the pick and roll.
That made it 49-39 Thunder at halftime, and then came the lightning.
Ibaka hit a pair of shots to open the second half, the first after a fancy behind then back pass from Sefolosha. Deng got a nice inside pass for a score from Boozer, and that would be the Bulls highlight of the second half. Ibaka took advantage of Noah playing off for a 15 footer, and the Thunder was off.
They scored 11 straight to take a 64-41 lead. Durant got a backdoor lob from Westbrook, who had five assists and zero turnovers, and Westbrook ended the 11-0 run with a three. Noah got inside for a three-point play, but that only gave the Bulls a chance to rest. Durant popped out for another three as Deng got caught up on a screen. Deng forced up an air ball going one-on-one, and Durant took advantage of Deng unable to get back for a runout lob dunk on a three quarter court pass from Westbrook for a 69-44 lead with 5:57 left an still another Bulls emergency timeout.
Not getting back in transition, forcing bad shots without much ball movement or player movement, going under screens, failing to close out. You’d say with the early, noon start it might have been a late night out, though this was Oklahoma City. I did hear though that some players were out until 10 when the yogurt shops closed.
“We had it down to four in the second quarter,” noted Korver. “They’ve got a couple of really good players who played great. We really didn’t have an answer for them. There were a lot of tough situations, and we really did not fight through it like we normally do.”
It really began to get ugly. Boozer had an outlet pass stolen by Westbrook, who passed to a cutting Ibaka for a slam dunk. Korver found room for a three and Gibson added a jumper to get the Bulls within 24. But the Thunder effectively ended it late in the third quarter when the Thunder swung the ball across the perimeter to Westbrook. He stepped past a frozen Brewer (which you cannot buy at Dairy Queen yet) and jumped just inside the outer circle and flew over Omer Asik for a powerful slam dunk and a couple of chest thumps afterward as much his own sense of pride as a message to the Bulls about being pounded.
“They are good. Their numbers say what they are. There’s not much they don’t have and they play hard,
unselfishly, smart, and they are tough. Their defense is excellent.”
Thibodeau mercifully took out Deng and put Gibson on Durant, which isn’t that much of a mismatch, as much as anyone with the likely MVP, as the Bulls switch so much with their big men. But Durant just walked into a three to make it 80-51, and you could hear the old Monday Night Football strains to “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
And it wasn’t any fun for the Bulls.
There actually were some nice Bulls hustle plays in the fourth quarter we’d be rhapsodizing about if they weren’t down 30, Jimmy Butler diving out of bounds to save a ball, Gibson on the boards and Brian Scalabrine with a pair of steals.
“They outcompeted us top to bottom,” said Gibson. “In that first quarter you have to come out and let a team know how determined you are. They outworked us, which was real frustrating.”
But this was no April Fool’s joke. The reality was the Bulls having their two worst losses of the season in the last week.
Rose will be back, likely in a week. So this will begin to change. But for all the amazing success the Bulls have had, this remains a fragile team very short on offense.
It’s a credit to the players and Thibodeau—-and perhaps a lesson to the league and youngsters—that you can win at a high level with defense, effort, team play and commitment. The Bulls have some advantages that substitute, in some sense, for the sort of talent Oklahoma City has. The Bulls have four high level bigs who haven’t been injured this season. That means a lot and as Pat Riley liked to say, “Rebounding equals rings.” The Bulls are No. 1 in rebounding and that wins you a lot of games. The Bulls also have depth, which has enabled them to deal with the injuries to Rose and Hamilton. Especially given that most teams don’t go more than six or seven deep with quality NBA players. Five Bulls regular reserves (Brewer and Watson start now) all have been starters before. So in this kind of season with so many games squeezed in, if you play defense, rebound and have depth you should be able to steal your share of games even with some major injuries.
But that doesn’t necessarily carry over to the playoffs. Remember, last season Miami beat the Bulls because the Bulls simply could not find enough scoring after Rose. The idea was to address that with Hamilton, though no one knows if he can survive a few games, let alone a long playoff run. My sense is he can, though he’ll have to show everyone in Chicago.
It’s, frankly, a fragile mix with the Bulls. Boozer is averaging 15.4 points, his fewest since his rookie season. Deng is averaging 15.2 points, his fewest in three seasons and shooting a career low 41 percent. The Bulls are averaging 96.9 per game, the lowest since Scott Skiles’ first full season in 2004-05. It doesn’t make for much margin for error without Rose.
The Bulls have escaped that remarkably well with perhaps the league’s best combination of defense and rebounding, holding opponents to 88.6 per game. Yes, the game slows some in the playoffs, though not always. You still have to score against teams like the Thunder and Heat, which want to run.
There are just 12 games left now in this shortened season. After Houston Monday, the Bulls play Boston, the Knicks twice and then Miami in the United Center on TNT. The following Thursday it’s Miami again on TNT. The playoffs begin the weekend of April 28. We should get a good idea in the next few weeks about whether the Bulls are prepared. Or whether they’re going to see a terrific season begin to go down the toilet.