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Thunder storms to finish to defeat Bulls
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 18
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The Bulls were right there, trailing the powerful Oklahoma City Thunder by a point with 10 minutes left.
“I thought we were in a good situation,” said Taj Gibson, who led the Bulls with 16 points in their 97-85 loss to Oklahoma City. “It was one of those games you want to take back. It was just one of those games nothing would drop. We had a lot of clear vision layups, lot of clean threes we normally hit in the fourth. We looked forward to the fourth and it just didn’t go our way.”
That’s because the Thunder is a true championship contender, which the Heat and Rockets are and the Bulls defeated them in this toughest stretch of the season even at home, six games against the strongest competition in the NBA. The Bulls would finish 3-3, which is not bad considering the quality of opponent, but still revealing.
You are what your record is remains a famous sports cliché, and 37-30 for the season is better than expected for the Bulls. But playing shorthanded, as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau constantly notes, requires the maximum effort and the best of fortune each game. As gritty and relentless as this Bulls team is, reality sometimes sets a hard screen on them. The Thunder, 49-18, has the almost certain league MVP in Kevin Durant, the game’s best scorer, and the ferocious Russell Westbrook. They would be just too much for a Bulls team still just a mid level playoff seed and probably just average against the best.
“Overall I feel we competed pretty hard against some very good teams,” said Joakim Noah, who had nine points, nine assists and 12 rebounds but mostly was controlled by fellow Defensive Player of the Year candidate Serge Ibaka. “Homestand (at) 3-3. We feel like we’re better than that. But we just have to keep grinding and moving forward.”
The Bulls will have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that as they now close with 13 of 15 games against Eastern teams, though one more big week ahead as starting Friday they play the first place Indiana Pacers twice in four days.
With that starting Wednesday is two games against the worst team in the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers with a 21-game losing streak. The Bulls lost to the 76ers the first week of the season, an embarrassment then and that was when the 76ers were playing well and before they had traded half their roster for second round draft picks. So wariness will be the warning.
It was Monday with the high powered Thunder. The Bulls did a lot of good things, like controlling the pace of play to keep the Thunder in the Bulls’ style of game, mostly defending other than the 13 of 25 Thunder three point shooting, and being in position in the fourth quarter to make something happen.
“I thought we did a lot of good things in this game,” said Thibodeau. “We didn’t cover the line like we would have liked to. We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would have liked to. They were swarming Taj and that’s why it’s so important to have shooting.”
But it wasn’t there this time as the Bulls were five of 22 on threes, though the Thunder is a good defensive team and does a good job disrupting three-point shooters. Overall, the Bulls shot 34.5 percent from the field with Noah two of eight and Jimmy Butler four of 12.
Certainly no surprise as Butler played just under 46 minutes and was the primary defender all game on the phenomenal Durant.
“I think Jimmy is first team defense the way he guards everybody and doesn’t shy away from contact,” said Gibson. “He really locks into guys. Tonight Durant hit a lot of tough threes with Jimmy basically hand to (face). He’s a talent. It’s really frustrating. We don’t have Luol (Deng) here to give him a break from time to time. He has to do everything. As a team we have to sacrifice. No excuses, come and find way. Make those baskets and play great defense.”
Play as perfectly as you can, but it’s so difficult against a team that can score like Oklahoma City with a scorer like Durant, who had 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
“A two or three minute bad stretch against a opponent like this is going to hurt you, and it did,” said Thibodeau. “Just because of the way they can shoot the three. If you are slow getting back or reacting out of a double team.”
It was a 13-0 run, which is what happened Monday after that Gibson short drop step move over Durant as the Thunder had gone to a smaller lineup. That Gibson score drew the Bulls within 76-75. But the Bulls would miss their next 11 shots and go scoreless for almost the next seven minutes.
In that stretch, Derek Fisher made a three with the Bulls big men trying to chase the Thunder guards, Ibaka spun inside for a slam dunk on a mixed coverage as Noah popped out to help, Durant slammed on a sweet pick and roll pass from Westbrook, who finally identified a cutter, Kirk Hinrich fouled Caron Butler on a three and Westbrook drove all the way for a score. Before Noah could get to the line for a pair of free throws, the Thunder had made it 89-75 with under four minutes remaining and there wasn’t any Bulls rally from that.
Durant made sure, anyway, with another slam dunk after Ibaka made a deep corner three.
“KD was shooting shots off one foot,” noted Noah. “Russell Westbrook kept coming. Serge Ibaka did a good job hitting shots. You have to give credit where credit is due. They played with an edge. I feel like Ibaka had a great game. He blocked some shots. He disrupted a lot of shots. Running the floor and also stretching the floor with his shooting ability. I’m disappointed with tonight. I’ll try to sleep this one off and move on.”
As well as the Bulls have played of late with wins over Miami and Houston, it’s a tough Thunder team because of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, arguably the league’s best Big Three, and thus a team the Bulls have not beaten in more than three years.
Westbrook had 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and Ibaka had 15 points and a pair of blocks.
But it’s mostly Durant, who, if anything, looks like he takes it easy on opponents. Durant looks like he can score 50 every game the way he shoots easily over everyone and moves so gracefully.
Butler battled him as physically and tough as seemingly possible, and Durant didn’t seem to flinch.
“He’s a terrific scorer; can score in multiple ways,” agreed Butler. “It’s a tough cover. You’ve got to give him props for that. It’s tough, but that’s what I asked for. He played a great game. I did what I could, to tell you the truth.”
Durant, nevertheless, scored at least 25 points for the 32nd consecutive games, the most such consecutive scoring games since Michael Jordan in 1986-87.
To Durant’s credit, he said it didn’t mean much, that he was honored to be mentioned with Jordan for scoring but he’d rather be mentioned with Jordan for championships. The Thunder isn’t a team that makes panic moves, for the most part. But you also have to wonder how much of a crossroads they are coming to with Durant now in his seventh season. He should get the MVP this season. He’s got the scoring titles. If the Thunder don’t make some serious playoff movement, you’d have to wonder about his future.
An aside about that scoring record: Wilt averaged 50 points one season and at least 33 in six others. So he apparently had a bunch of 24-point games in the middle of all that. And, remember, Wilt played every week against the greatest centers in the history of the game, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond and Walt Bellamy. Not to take anything away from Durant, who is a marvel like we’ve never seen in basketball with his size and agility, but let’s hold off celebrating 25-point scoring games.
“He makes it look easy,” said Mike Dunleavy, a scorer who can appreciate Durant’s excellence. “His skill level is so high, his athleticism is high, his IQ is high. The biggest thing of all is kind of like (Dirk) Nowitzki with his length. Even when you do play good defense, he can still get the best of you how high he shoots it and the way he can extend. He’s probably the best scorer in our league and he’ll go down as one of the best ever. He (also) seems like a great team player willing to make the right play. For the most part he can get his and involve everyone else.”
It would prove too much for a mostly seven-player Bulls team as Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Dunleavy added 11 points and a pair of threes. Though D.J. Augustin missed all six of his three-point attempts and Butler missed five of six.
“We knew we would have to play well to win this game,” said Thibodeau. “I have a lot of confidence in D.J.’s shooting. We had a few go in and out on us and we had some point blank ones go in and out on us. We’ve got to finish a little bit stronger.”
The Thunder took a 23-21 lead after one quarter, which was mostly a positive for the Bulls. Noah made some nice back door passes and Boozer had a strong rebound and put back slam dunk. The Bulls kept the Thunder’s shooters neutralized with both teams under 40 percent.
But the Thunder is an active defensive team like the Bulls with unusual size inside with the long armed Durant, Ibaka and rookie Steven Adams. The Thunder did a good job closing on the Bulls big men inside. The response is to move the ball to shooters, and the shots weren’t going this time.
The Thunder still led just 47-45 at halftime as Nazr Mohammed had a big stretch with eight rebounds and four points in about seven minutes in that second quarter against the Thunder’s reserves, not a strong part of their team.
Oklahoma City, though, got going in the third quarter behind Durant’s shooting and Westbrook’s fury as Westbrook came out of the game yelling at a courtside fan to stop talking to him. Or something like that.
The Thunder led 74-67 after three. The Bulls made that run with a Butler steal and slam dunk and a pair of Gibson scores to get within one, and then it was a storm of the Thunder lighting it up.
“Once him (Westbrook) and Kevin get hot it’s tough to contain them,” said Gibson.
“He demands a lot of attention,” Noah said about Durant. “He’s the best player in the world right now.”
Still, it’s not a bad stretch against teams with a combined record of more than 100 games over .500. And that’s including the losing Kings.
“But 3-3?” Noah shrugged. “We’ll take it. We have to move forward. I wish we could have this game back. I wish we could play those guys again. But it is what it is.”
Good enough to win a lot of tough games, but hardly all of them.