After the Thunder completely number two’d themselves Sunday night against the Mavericks, there was an added pressure to the value of Monday’s game in Chicago. Not only did Scott Brooks and his staff make a controversial choice to rest Russell Westbrook on the first night of the back-to-back rather than the second, but the team played an awful, uninspired 48 minutes, something that Kevin Durant wasn’t happy about postgame.
But with Westbrook back and the team pissed off in general, the Thunder found that missing intensity and effort, not allowing the Bulls 25 points in any quarter. A sound defensive effort combined with clinical fourth quarter execution took a one-point game with 10:00 left and turned it into as many as a 16-point one.
After the Thunder’s second unit let a lead slip to 76-75, Scott Brooks brought Kevin Durant back in. Derek Fisher canned a 3 off a scramble to take the lead to four, and then Russell Westbrook subbed in for his elder. The Thunder carried on, going on a 13-0 run over a six and a half minute span to methodically put away the scrappy Bulls.
Not that any of you need any more convincing because you’re smart people, but in the last 24 hours you pretty much saw the Thunder-are-better-without-Westbrook thing put down to rest. And not only did OKC play significantly better with Westbrook, but Durant even got his numbers and everything looked real good in the box score. KD had 35 points on 11-21 shooting with 12 rebounds and five assists. Westbrook flirted with a triple double going for 17 points (on just 5-14, though), with nine rebounds and nine assists. Serge Ibaka had 15. Those three: +22, +22 and +23. Next best plus/minus: Reggie Jackson at +6.
Which, if you’re looking for concerns after this feel-good win, is one. The Thunder’s second unit seems to have gone from marked strength to a clear question. Caron Butler was added to help this perceived problem, but the Thunder may have been tinkering with something that wasn’t actually broken. Butler has performed decently thus far, but Jeremy Lamb has been a casualty of his addition and the explosive dynamism seems to be gone from the bench. The first three minutes of the fourth were a struggle, and something we’ve seen quite a bit of lately.
But that kind of stuff gets mostly alleviated in postseason basketball, because Westbrook and Durant carry a larger load. And as you saw tonight, when those two are on the floor, the Thunder don’t have all that many issues. The high pick-and-roll the Thunder picked on the Bulls with was on point, and the looks OKC got were consistently solid.
Durant said it last night that the Thunder had an opportunity to bounce back and feel better about themselves very quickly. But playing the gritty Bulls, it was going to take a hefty effort, with quality defense, strong halfcourt execution and sound shot-making. They responded by hitting 13-25 from 3 and getting to the line 28 times. And they held the Bulls to just 34.5 percent shooting.
The things they did horribly bad against the Mavs on Sunday, they did terrifically well against the Bulls on Monday. A lot of that can be oversimplified with “Russell Westbrook was back,” but the better explanation is that the Thunder didn’t play like complete butt. If that makes better sense.
- Durant is just so absurd. He started the game 1-5 and I was already writing things about how impressive Jimmy Butler is to be able to defend LeBron and Durant the way he does. Then KD made eight of his next nine and finished the game with 35 on 21 shots.
- The Thunder’s lineup to start the fourth: Jackson, Fisher, Butler, Collison and Thabeet. Brooks has tried that one, or a close variation to it a few different times, and it has worked mostly worthlessly.
- I can say this because the Thunder played so well and won tonight, but I think they made the right choice sitting Westbrook against the Mavs and playing him against the Bulls. Playing at home against a team you’ve beaten 11 straight times seemed much more winnable than going on the road against one of the hottest teams in the league since January.
- I have no problem with Butler getting quality minutes. He was signed to play big minutes and to hit big shots. He had 12 tonight, putting him in double-figures four out his seven games with OKC. But he played 29 again tonight. Brooks clearly has a fetish for veterans with intangibles, because Jeremy Lamb was never given the kind of leash Butler is getting right now. Lamb never saw minutes that heavy, never played with Durant and Westbrook that much and never got a similar license within the offense. Lamb has tailed off severely since exploding against the Heat in late January, but I wonder how much of that was him just having his confidence slowly zapped.
- Related: Lamb narrowly avoided his first DNP of the season, checking in for 1:50 of garbage time.
- Westbrook and Ibaka appeared to have a mild argument/confrontation about something early in the fourth quarter. Wasn’t intense or severe.
- Durant set a new franchise record for most consecutive games scoring at least 25 points at 32, breaking Spencer Haywood’s mark of 31. Another way to say it: Durant now has scored at least 25 in 32 straight, the second longest streak in NBA history (Michael Jordan, 40 in 1986-87).
- That awkward moment when Hubie Brown went on and on about how much he loves Nick Collison when it was actually Steven Adams.
- During ESPN’s slow jazz version of its NBA theme song, my little brother said, “What am I, in Braum’s right now?”
- Steven Adams played a solid 21 minutes. Rebounded well, was decent defending the pick-and-roll and set a few soul-crushing screens.
- Someone needs to turn Andre Roberson’s shooting slider up more. When he lets fly on a corner 3, it’s just a prayer that it catches iron. That’s a weird feeling to have for a starting shooting guard in the NBA.
- Maybe if Roberson hit a few more shots, Mike Breen would’ve pronounced his name correctly.
- Has Caron Butler ever missed a shot long? I feel like everything is just scraping its way over the rim if it goes in.
- Perry Jones got his first DNP-CD since Jan. 21.
- Derek Fisher hit a big 3 tonight, but he’s just three of his last 13 from deep. Regression is real. And it’s coming.
- Serge Ibaka started on Joakim Noah, with Steven Adams on Carlos Boozer. The two interchanged quite a bit. Good decision I thought from Brooks putting the more experienced and better defending Ibaka on Noah. Noah went just 2-8 from the field, but did flirt with a triple-double going 9-12-9.
- Nick Collison didn’t play well at all. He was slow on his rotations, committed bad fouls, missed good looks and didn’t rebound well.
- Those sleeved green Bulls jerseys. They deserved to lose.
Next up: Thursday at the Cavaliers