The Bulls were the better-rested team, while still missing DeMar DeRozan they were still facing off against a Thunder squad on the second end of a back-to-back, and playing its third game in four nights. But it sure didn’t look like that on Friday.
Instead, our Chicago Bulls, as so often happens, fell down big early to the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, expended a ton of energy getting back into the game during the contest’s third period and ran out of steam with sloppy two-way play in the fourth quarter.
The ultimate margin: a younger, longer, quicker, more athletic Thunder club schooled Chicago late, 124-110. It was a game with a lot of runs from both sides, but the Thunder pulling away early in the fourth quarter to finish with the lopsided margin.
Back to the beginning: Chicago and Oklahoma City played the game’s first quarter relatively evenly. The Thunder led 33-31 after the game’s initial 12 minutes, but at least Coby White was enjoying one of his better offensive games:
The Thunder ran away with the game in the second quarter, closing out the half on a 36-16 run. Oklahoma City headed into the halftime break up 72-58. Zach LaVine and Coby White (!) paced the pack with 14 points apiece. The Thunder had led by as many as 18 points in the first half.
Chicago just could not contain OKC’s three-point shooting in that first half:
Responded with ack-to- ack tres! pic.twitter.com/EYw4bZy0z2— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 14, 2023
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also made one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, Alex Caruso, look positively mortal for much of the night, breaking him down off the dribble for easy paint positioning often:
Elevating on the 23-10 run ‼️ pic.twitter.com/jsW76dhiEy— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 14, 2023
Chicago’s lackadaisical approach to the game, especially in terms of Bulls players’ defensive communication, helped put them in a bit of an intimidating hole, in a home game against a rebuilding team that would have been happy to lose.
Things turned around for Chicago big-time in the third quarter.
The Bulls, propelled mostly by a Zach + small-ball bench lineup (Stacey King was of course calling for Vooch to be brought in for some post-ups), cut the Thunder’s lead to just five, 86-81. Later in the frame, a lineup of Dragic/Caruso/Coby/Paw/Vucevic (notice who was absent) propelled the club to a 9-0 run to trim the Oklahoma City Thunder edge to 91-90 at the end of the third quarter.
At least Patrick Williams had a “Good Pat” game, exhibiting a fearlessness with the ball he so often seems to lack:
SGA, though, remained an incredibly tough cover even during this frame, when the Bulls often threw a help defender at him:
A Nikola Vucevic layup shrank Chicago’s deficit to just a point, 93-92 with 10:31 remaining in regulation. The Bulls would never get that close again. Buoyed by aggressive group scoring around the paint, Oklahoma City went on a 15-4 tear to move back into a comfy double-digit advantage midway through the fourth period.
A Darius Bazeley interception of a Vucevic inbounds pass led to an eventual Giddey step-back one-legged triple. This sequence more or less put the game out of reach for Chicago, getting the team to a 120-105 lead with 1:44 remaining.
LaVine and Vucevic combined to score 17 of the Bulls’ 20 points in the frame (Coby White chipped in the rest, a meaningless three with the clock winding down). As has been the case far too often this season, their teammates couldn’t be counted on to make a shot in the clutch. Perhaps accordingly, Chicago went just 7-of-21 from the field (33.3%) in this deciding last quarter, which helped doom the club against a far more accurate Thunder team (a far superior 14-of-24 shooting from the floor — 58.3%).
Oklahoma City’s young guns outclassed Chicago’s with their length and athleticism. The Thunder also outshot the Bulls overall (with a lot of its damage actually being done inside the post this time), going 47-of-95 (51.1%), as opposed to Chicago’s 38-of-85 (44.7%). Oklahoma City notched 64 points in the paint, a marked edge over Chicago’s 44. Part of that came down to the Thunder’s young players, especially Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, being able to beat their Bulls defenders off the dribble. Chicago also struggled to communicate defensive information on switches.
Josh Giddey led the Thunder with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double, while outstanding rookie power forward Jalen Williams scored 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 8 rebounds. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 21 points while connecting on 7-of-14 of his field goals, dished out six dimes, grabbed five boards, swiped four steals and rejected two shots.
Zach LaVine scored a Bulls-most 25 points, but he got most of his offense from his 14-of-15 shooting performance from the free-throw line. He made a brutal 5-of-19 of his looks from the floor (1-of-8 from long range). Coby White tied his season high of 19 points off the bench, on 7-of-15 shooting from the floor (4-of-9 from three). Nikola Vucevic had his eighth straight double-double, scoring 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field, 11 rebounds and four assists.
Williams enjoyed one of his best, most engaged games this year, scoring 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the floor (2-of-6 from long range) and 4-of-4 shooting from the charity stripe. He also grabbed five rebounds, dished out three assists, grabbed a steal and blocked a shot in 26:02 — and was riding pining for the game’s closing 10 minutes for... some reason.
Chicago is now 7-12 against sub-.500 clubs. Without DeMar DeRozan (or, yes, Lonzo Ball), this Bulls team looks an awful lot like the lottery-bound Zach LaVine eyesores we had to deal with from 2017-2021.
The defeat drops the Bulls to a 19-24 record and the East’s 11th seed. Assuming DeRozan misses another week or two how low can Chicago go? On paper, the team has a couple winnable games coming up in the next two weeks, specifically against the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic. After seeing this DeMar-free lineup get trounced by two lottery-bound clubs already, what’s to say the team can go better than, at best, 2-2 across those contests? I’m not holding my breath.