The score after three quarters of Sunday’s showdown between the East’s top team and the West’s top team: Chicago Bulls 51, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook 53.
Now, I know. I know. The Bulls were again without Derrick Rose. That’s important to keep in mind. But here we are having watched the Thunder beat the Heat by 16, the Lakers by nine in L.A. and now the Bulls by 14. And guess what month it is: April. When you want to start playing your best basketball. When you want to start putting the pieces together in preparation for the postseason.
I’d say the Thunder are doing that.
The Thunder led the Bulls wire to wire, leading by as much as 30. The first half was crisp with OKC holding the Bulls to only 35.6 percent shooting while the Thunder got pretty much what they wanted against the vaunted Chicago defense. Tom Thibodeau was clearly frustrated with his team right before the half, so it was expected that the Bulls would come out of the locker room focused and ready. Except the Thunder started on an 8-2 run, went up by 16 and basically finished Chicago straight away.
That third quarter was something else. OKC outscored 31-12, flew down the court for alley oops, Nick Collison dunked over Omer Asik and then Westbrook detonated over Asik to put the punctuation on the win.
“It’s not something I’m saying at halftime, trust me,” Brooks said.
Said Durant: “We just picked up the intensity I think.”
I’m not even sure the word “impressed” is good enough. Again, no Rose, but I’m not sure Rose’s best game could’ve stopped this onslaught. The Thunder were locked in and the Bulls weren’t ready for it. Durant dropped jumpers over Luol Deng with ease early on, Westbrook got whatever he wanted against C.J. Watson and John Lucas and the Thunder’s defense was as good as its ever been. The Bulls shot 33 percent in this game. Thirty-three! For a game! They grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, but that’s mostly just because they had a crack at one every other possession.
If this is what the Thunder have been building for, then things might be alright. There will be a dark day or two yet before the season ends. But the Thunder are showing what they’re capable of. They’re not good, but very, very good. And finally realizing how that stacks up against teams they might see down the line.
I’ve said before that Westbrook and Durant seem to be figuring out how to operate together and this is just another example. Yeah, Westbrook took two more shots than KD. Did it matter? Of course not. Westbrook didn’t pick up his first assist until the third quarter? Did it matter? Not at all. This makes just one turnover for Westbrook his last two games and if you asked me, maybe the best stretch of basketball he’s ever played. The game against Portland was outstanding, the Laker game was terrific and today’s effort was near perfect.
He’s always been an improving player and while I still don’t think we’re close to seeing a finished product, Westbrook is beginning to manage his modes. He can switch from scorer to distributor much easier. That’s just part of a 23-year-old’s maturation in the NBA. Sometimes, it can be hard to turn off. Sometimes he can get bullheaded, force shots and press while he should have switched over to point guard mode and started distributing. But playing that hybrid role of scorer and passer is a lot harder than it sounds. To pick spots, pick moments and understand when and where to shoot, score, pass and create isn’t easy. Westbrook though, is as close to figuring that out as he’s ever been.
And of course when you’ve got a guy on the wing you can give it to like Durant who goes 11-of-16 for 26 points almost as an afterthought, that eases things. Or so it seems. What it often does is create this manufactured tension that doesn’t exist between Westbrook and Durant that KD needs the ball more and Russ is intentionally keeping it away from him. That mindset confuses me more than anything. I just don’t understand how or why you’d want to bottle and cage the type of scoring talent Westbrook is just so he can pass the ball to Durant and stand aside. Where do you think the Thunder would get that extra 25 points a game from that Westbrook gives? Durant’s already close to leading the league in scoring, so I doubt he’s going to average 10 more a game. It’s not like you can plug in a so-called “pure” point guard and now KD averaged 45 a game, Serge Ibaka 15 and Harden 25. What the Thunder have with Westbrook is clearly working. Is it perfect? Of course not. But wins over the Heat, Lakers and Bulls say it’s pretty close.
- Remember when we were all griping about turnovers? Not so much anymore. Just 13 today and the past three weeks, the Thunder have pretty consistently kept them around 15. Assists are up, turnovers are down. Again, as I said back in January when everyone was freaking over this stuff, the season is long and you want to be fixing it now. Which the Thunder appear to be.
- Via my pal Matt Moore, the Thunder had a true shooting percentage of 95.2. Whoa.
- Since KD started 0-of-8 against the Lakers, he’s gone 21-of-30 from the field.
- I almost like a lefty Westbrook dunk as much as I like a poster. I said almost.
- On the video board Thunder players answered who their favorite superheroes are. Kendrick Perkins said The Joker. Sounds about right.
- Both Westbrook and Durant seem to really be able to use Perk’s screens exceptionally well. They can pick that little pocket by either elbow and get a pick from Perk for an open jumper almost at will. Perk sets outstanding screens almost completely wiping out the defender. If the help is late, it’s almost an automatic two points for OKC.
- John Lucas most definitely does not look like an NBA player. But he did take more shots than both KD and Westbrook.
- Westbrook on if the Thunder’s defense is underrated: “In this locker room, we know we can guard anybody in this league and I think we did a good job with that tonight.”
- Joakim Noah: “It was awful offensively and defensively. It was disappointing. Not that any game is more important than others, but obviously this was a game between the best team in the East and the best team in the West. It’s more disappointing know that, for us to lose like that is bad.”
- Westbrook completely destroyed a baseline cameraman in the second quarter. He was holding his head after it happened, but shook it off and stayed in the game. The cameraman, I mean. Trooper.
- KD on if this was OKC’s best game: “I really don’t know. We just take one game at a time and improve one game at a time.”
- Only one Chicago starter scored in double-figures.
- Thibodeau on Serge Ibaka: “Ibaka’s very, very impressive. To me, he’s an All-Star caliber player.”
- KD had to keep with his pregame routine of giving Brian Davis and Grant Long a five, but they weren’t there because this was a national broadcast. So instead, he gave it to Darnell Mayberry and Jenni Carlson.
- KD didn’t attempt a free throw for the first time all season against the Lakers and only took two today against the Bulls.
- Russell Westbrook was mic’d up for the game. Asked about how he thought it went he said, “I honestly don’t remember some of the stuff I was saying, but we’ll see what it sounds like.”
Next up: Memphis at home Monday.