Early in the second quarter on Thursday, it looked like it was going to be one of THOSE nights. The Bulls' offense was stuck in a rut, while Russell Westbrook was doing Russell Westbrook things and Serge Ibaka was making all of the long twos. The result was a 16-point deficit, and the Bulls easily could have packed it in for the night on the front end of a back-to-back.
Of course, the Bulls didn't do that, and they ultimately pulled out a thrilling 108-105 victory thanks in large part to the superb play of Nikola Mirotic and E'Twaun Moore. Mirotic struggled with his shooting for much of the night, but he had 14 points in the fourth quarter (on two shots) and made 14-of-16 from the line to score a team-high 26 points.
Meanwhile, Moore had a career-high 19 points on an absurd 9-of-10 shooting, and his game-winning three-pointer gave him 13 points in the fourth quarter alone. Seriously, the Bulls just won a game because Nikola Mirotic and E'Twaun Moore combined for 27 fourth-quarter points.
But let's rewind this back to when the Bulls were down 16. They looked dead in the water, but some sloppy play from the Thunder bench (Dion Waiters step-backs for life. Seriously, this guy sucks.) and the insertion of Moore into the game helped turn things around. Not to mention the continued energized play of Joakim Noah, who had a monster impact with his defense and passing once again.
Moore not only contributed with his crazy hot shooting, but he helped disrupt Westbrook's offense, forcing several turnovers and generally doing a nice job keeping him out of the paint. The Bulls doubled up the Thunder on points in the paint in the first half, and that 16-point deficit dropped down to two by halftime thanks to several extra efforts on the glass by Pau Gasol, who had 15 points, seven boards and pure domination of Enes Kanter at the half.
The Bulls actually took the lead in the third quarter, and it went back and forth for a while before Westbrook and Ibaka took over again. After two Kanter free throws in the first minute of the third quarter, Westbrook and Ibaka scored the final 27 points of the quarter, with Westbrook putting up 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the frame. The Bulls scored just enough to keep the game within striking distance, however, and a running floater by Kirk Hinrich (his second ridiculous shot of the game) at the buzzer had the margin at seven points heading into the fourth quarter.
The Bulls, thanks to Mirotic and Moore, began to score at will at the start of the fourth, but they couldn't make a dent in the deficit because the Thunder couldn't miss either. D.J. Augustin got free several times (I think this was Kirk's fault), and the former Bull had all 10 of his points in the early part of the fourth quarter.
During that time, Mirotic finally got off the schneid from three after missing his first seven attempts from deep, with a bushel of those being wide open looks. Moore unleashed an array of shots, including some nifty floaters and jumpers.
But again, the Bulls couldn't get enough stops to make a dent in the deficit, until they finally did. After yet another Ibaka long jumper with 5:11 left put the Thunder up 100-91, the Bulls finished the game on a 17-5 run. The Bulls themselves cooled off a bit offensively, but Mirotic used his savvy to get to the line, even getting a few generous calls by just launching himself at the basket. Ibaka had some difficulty guarding Mirotic out to the three-point line, and the rookie used that to his advantage to get to the line.
After all this, the Bulls still looked like they were in trouble after Kanter finally did something right, beating Gasol for an offensive rebound and putting in a layup to put the Thunder up four with 1:06 left. But then came perhaps my favorite shot of the game, an onions three by Mirotic with Ibaka right up in his grill to make it a one-point game.
Westbrook answered with a killer jumper of his own, only to see Mirotic draw another foul on Ibaka out near the three-point line. The rookie calmly made both free throws, and the Bulls got a stop on the other end when it looked like Westbrook went looking for a foul on a jumper even though he had Mirotic in a blender. The result was an air-ball and a 24-second violation, and Moore followed that up with his game-winner after a beautiful pass from Gasol in the post.
The Thunder had a chance to tie or win, but Waiters's dumb ass inbounded to a trapped Westbrook and he stepped out of bounds, sealing the victory for the Bulls.
Enough can't be said about Mirotic and Moore, but both Gasol and Mike Dunleavy had 21 big points apiece, while Noah had 12 points and nine assists. All this was just enough to offset the 43 points, eight rebounds and seven assists from Westbrook, and the 25 points from Ibaka.
The Bulls are now 2-0 without Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, which is pretty unreal. Sure, the Wizards are pure shit right now and the Thunder were playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Kevin Durant after overtime last night. But shit, man, the Bulls have been without Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson and faced several big deficits tonight. AND STILL WON.
I really shouldn't be surprised by these kinds of wins anymore, because they've become a trademark of the Tom Thibodeau era. These guys always seem to dig deep with their backs against the wall. Ultimately, these types of performances don't really mean much in the big picture, because a guy like Moore is never going to have another game like this in his life and you don't win NBA championships with these gritty, short-handed efforts.
But there's something tangible to be excited about right now, and that's the development of Mirotic. This guy has been incredible the last three games, putting up 78 points and 25 rebounds while getting to the line a whopping 35 times. This kid looks like he's going to be special, and if/when this team is fully healthy, he needs to be on the floor a lot. The Noah/Mirotic pairing is something that really works, especially with Noah doing the Point Center ditty and Mirotic spacing the floor.
I think I'm probably rambling at this point, so let's enjoy the hell out of this for one night. The Bulls will be right back at it in Indiana tomorrow night, and that game won't be easy, as the Pacers have been one of the best teams in the East of late.
PS: Moore over Kirk, please.