One of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus frequent sayings is fools gold, in which he refers to his teams success, despite not playing the mistake-free style he prefers. That phrase would apply to Tuesday nights preseason contest against the Thunder, in which the Bulls eked out a 94-89 victory, though the team clearly took a step back as they regular season approaches.
A quick start for the hosts, sparked by Luol Dengs (21 points, five rebounds, three steals) scoring and Carlos Boozers (24 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) passing, earned the Bulls a slim cushion, but the short-handed visitorsplaying without the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrookcame back to narrow the gap behind the big-man tandem of Serge Ibaka (24 points, eight rebounds, and Kendrick Perkins. However, the home team again gained some separation, buoyed by an 8-0 run and Joakim Noahs (15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals) formidable defensive presence and high activity level on the other end of the floor.
But Oklahoma City didnt relent and with the combination of Ibakas much-improved jumper and the replacement starting backcourt of reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner James Harden (13 points on 2-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds and assists apiece) and Eric Maynor pushing the pace, the gap was narrowed. Increased defensive intensity at the end of the framemost notably, Kirk Hinrichs hustle playsled to a 28-22 Bulls advantage after a period of play.
Surprisingly, former No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeeta 7-foot-3 center, who was previously labeled a bustwas the catalyst for the Thunder making it a close-knit affair at the outset of the second quarter. Outside of second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, the Bulls second unit struggled on both ends, as they allowed the visitors to creep back into the contest before Bulls head coach opted to reinsert most of his regulars.
Boozer got his scoring going for the home team and Hinrich also looked for his shot more, but most importantly, the defense clamped down, frustrating Harden, in particular. By the intermission, the Bulls built a double-digit winning margin and went into the break ahead, 51-40.
As the third quarter started, things began to get a bit testier on the courtthe physical Perkins was engaged in a battle with Boozer and Noahbut although the Bulls appeared somewhat frustrated, they maintained their comfortable edge. And drew the foul-prone Thunder into the bonus even before the periods midway point. On a down note, the Bulls lost Hinrich for the evening with a strained right groin, stretching their point-guard corps, already missing All-Star Derrick Rose, even thinner.
First backup Nate Robinson, then rookie Marquis Teague saw action and while neither was a disaster, the Thunder cut into the deficit as the period waned on. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls clung to a 73-67 lead.
It would be nice to characterize the low-scoring nature of the early fourth quarter as a defensive struggle, but for the Bulls, it was more of an exercise in offensive futility, with little solace taken for their own defense, as the Thunder had several deep reserves in the contest. Still, despite Ibakas continued outside marksmanship, the hosts were able to keep Oklahoma City at bay behind the interior play of Boozer and Noah.
Down the stretch, Thunder rookie forward Perry Jones III (14 points) came on strong and made it a single-possession game before a contested, fading Boozer jumper with 34.4 seconds left. After a timeout, the talented and athletic Jones responded with an acrobatic layup at the 22.8 mark to make it 89-86 in the Bulls favor, but Robinson split a pair of free throws with 18.5 seconds remaining and though Oklahoma City made repeated comeback attempts, the hosts escaped with the win, with veteran Rip Hamilton salting the game away at the foul line.