Maybe the Bulls (3-2) dont have nationally-recognized star power with superstar Derrick Rose on the shelf, but they showed that they can hang with the leagues elite teams, albeit in a loss, Thursday evening at the United Center.
Oklahoma City (3-2) outlasted the Bulls, 97-91, in a game that was ragged at times, but extremely intense and a nip-and-tuck affair throughout.
Propelled by a fast start from Rip Hamilton (20 points, eight rebounds), the Bulls jumped out to a quick lead over the visiting Thunder, whose primary source of offense in the early going was defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha, a player who has some familiarity with the rims on West Madison Street.
The hosts got balanced offense from the entire starting five, highlighted by Luol Dengs (27 points) aggressive play and Carlos Boozers (nine points, 11 rebounds) interior work, as well as the teams ongoing commitment to transition play.
But Oklahoma City righted the ship quickly, led by Serge Ibakas (21 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots) much-improved outside jumper the leagues reigning shot-blocking leader showcased his new weapon against the Bulls in the preseason and narrowed the gap. The Bulls clung to a slim lead for the remainder of the period, but three-time consecutive NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant (24 points, three blocks) stole a pass and finished an uncontested fast-break dunk to tie the game at 24 apiece to end the first quarter.
Oklahoma Citys second unit caught the wave of momentum from the starters, with newly acquired scorer Kevin Martin (15 points) asserting himself in the second quarter. From three-pointers to traditional three-point plays, the veteran shooting guard scored in various fashions to help the guests overtake the Bulls.
However, in their usual resilient fashion, the Bulls fought back second-year swingman Jimmy Butlers defense and hustle was a catalyst as the first half waned on and built their own slim cushion. But another Thunder run, this time a 6-0 spurt, to close the half sent the Bulls into the intermission trailing, 48-47.
The two opposing starting floor generals, Kirk Hinrich (12 points, five assists) and Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook (16 points, 12 assists), both heated up after the break and though the latters shot selection was questionable, his oft-overlooked passing was significant for Oklahoma City in the first half. Hinrich and long-time running buddy Deng carried the Bulls offensively at the outset of the third quarter, again helping the Bulls gain an edge, albeit a tiny one, on the scoreboard.
Hinrichs backcourt partner, Hamilton, again found his stride, as well, engaging in a subtle battle with Martin, a player with similar skills masters of the mid-range game, adept at getting to the foul line, outstanding at moving away from the ball but with Westbrooks shooting struggles, further compounding matters, the Bulls took control of the tight-knit affair. The Bulls held a 72-66 advantage heading into the final stanza.
Oklahoma City stormed back in the beginning of the fourth quarter, erasing the hosts cushion and again making it a back-and-forth contest, as Ibakas influence on both ends of the floor, coupled with timely scoring from Durant, nullified a yeoman-like effort inside from Joakim Noah (nine points, 13 rebounds, six assists).
The visitors built a slight winning margin, but it was immediately in peril because of Dengs determination as scorer, which saw the All-Star assert himself as the Bulls go-to player in a successful attempt to even things out.
Knotted up at 87-all with just over two minutes to go, the Thunder took the lead on a Westbrook driving layup, buckled down on defense, then made it a two-possession game on a Durant floater with 46.8 seconds remaining.
A Taj Gibson jumper with 35.1 seconds to go gave the United Center faithful hope, but a Durant fadeaway off one foot with 19.5 seconds on the clock silenced the crowd and while a Noah dunk with no resistance from the Thunder brought the Bulls closer, it was all academic after that, as Oklahoma City closed the game out at the charity stripe.