The Bulls scratched, clawed and fought hard all night, but they could not overcome Kevin Durant clutchness down the stretch and fell 97-91 to the Thunder. Durant, who was outplayed by Luol Deng for much of the game, scored eight points in the final 3:16 to shut the door on a Bulls team that really missed Derrick Rose down the stretch.
This was one of those games where on paper, it looked like a huge mismatch in favor of the Thunder. The Bulls were smoked last year by OKC without Rose, so at first glance, a blowout certainly wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility. But after thinking about some of those Rose-less games last year, specifically the "John Lucas III Game'" against the Heat, I began to talk myself into thinking the Bulls would be competitive.
And competitive they were. The Bulls came out strong, getting everybody involved offensively and doing a nice job slowing down the high-powered Thunder attack. Russell Westbrook was terrible Russell Westbrook, and Durant started slow against an aggressive Deng. The Bulls shot 57.9 percent in the first quarter, but a late Thunder surge provided by Durant and Serge Ibaka got the game close. We couldn't even really blame Carlos Boozer for Ibaka's hot start, because it was mainly Joakim Noah failing to close out sufficiently on a few Ibaka jumpers jumpers (Boozer was to blame, and would be PLENTY the rest of the game). And that's the last bad thing I'm going to say about Noah tonight.
The Thunder threatened to pull away early in the second quarter against an over-matched Bulls bench, forcing Thibs to stray from his normal rotations (or what would have been normal the past few seasons) and go to a few different looks. Jimmy Butler was quickly inserted in favor of Marco Belinelli to check Kevin Martin, while Nazr Mohammed was pulled within minutes, leading to extended minutes for the Boozer/Gibson combo in the frontcourt. Butler once again provided a nice spark, and he along with the other Bulls starters sans Richard Hamilton were able to regain the lead late in the half before another poor close to a quarter gave the Thunder a halftime lead.
The Bulls actually took command in the third quarter despite sloppy play that actually plagued them all night (20 turnovers). The Thunder were just as sloppy (22 turnovers on the night) and Westbrook went through an especially bad stretch, forcing up dumb shot after dumb shot and committing a couple of silly turnovers. The Bulls led by six going into the fourth quarter, naturally setting up the question of who Thibs would close with and who would provide the clutch scoring.
Surprisingly, both benches got a good amount of burn early in the fourth, with the Thunder's once again making some headway. Deng and Noah did their best to keep the Bulls alive, with Lu finally burying some threes and Noah doing work on the offensive glass. Deng also took full advantage of a matchup over Kevin Martin, who has never really been confused for a good defender.
But when things got really tight at the end, the Thunder had two superstars and the Bulls had none. Thibs went with a more traditional lineup of Hinrich/Hamilton/Deng/Gibson/Noah, which was probably the right call given how things were playing out. Nate Robinson was horrible and although Butler played well in his first stint, Hamilton was hitting shots.
Westbrook made some nice plays and Durant did his thing, while the Bulls labored offensively to get good looks. Scott Brooks switched up his defensive matchups, sticking Thabo Sefolosha on Deng and moving Martin over to Hinrich and Westbrook to Hamilton. It was a brilliant move, as Martin was hidden on Hinrich while Thabo bodied up Deng and Westbrook used his speed to effectively chase Hamilton around screens.
Even so, the Bulls were right there until almost the very end. A Gibson jumper pulled the Bulls within two with 35 seconds left, but Durant's nasty Dirk impression proved to be the dagger (via ProBasketballTalk.com):
At the end of the day, it's hard to find too much to complain about in a game like this against a clearly more talented opponent. Sure the bench was garbage, Boozer was pathetic and the fourth quarter was a train wreck, but a lot of that will probably be par for the course this season. The Bulls got strong efforts from Deng (27 points on 11-of-21 shooting), Noah (9/13/6), Hamilton (20 points) and Hinrich (12 points and pretty good defense on Westbrook). They just got beat by superstars.
Would things have gone different with Rose out there? Perhaps. But we can't always use that as an excuse. These guys will be in a bunch of close games, and they will have to execute better in order to win these games. And hopefully they will do it more often than not. It will also help when the Bulls don't have to face the second-best player in the world.