It certainly wasn’t the way the Bulls wanted to end their six-game home stand, but in general, they can hold their heads high after breaking even following their 97-85 defeat Monday night at the hands of the Thunder at the United Center.
The offensive firepower and explosive athleticism of the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was overwhelming at times, but a six-and-a-half minute scoreless drought in the fourth quarter is what truly did the Bulls in. Still, for more than three quarters, they were competitive with one of the Western Conference’s best teams, something that should both frustrate them and in a back-handed way, give them confidence moving forward.
Of course, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t see things that way.
“The second half, we didn’t close to the [three-point] line as hard as we needed to, so 13 threes. And Durant is going to do that to you and so will the pressure that Westbrook will put on you. So we obviously have to close harder, finish the defense better and when they went small, we have to give the appropriate help from the appropriate people. So that’s something that we’re capable of doing a lot better. And then we’ve got to make shots. We didn’t shoot the ball well. Overall, the first half I thought we played well. Third quarter, not as well, 27-point quarter and then of course, we didn’t finish the game as well as we would have liked,” the coach explained. “You’ve got to make plays. I think the big thing, you’ve got to make shots, too, to open up the inside. So we didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would have liked. The ball moved in the first half pretty well. The second half, the third quarter, not as well as we were capable of and the same thing in the fourth.”
Unsurprisingly, Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah had a similar take on things.
“We missed shots tonight. We were still in the game. Against a team like that, when they hit tough shots, that was tough. ‘K.D.’ [Durant] was shooting shots off one foot. Russell Westbrook kept coming. Serge Ibaka did a good job hitting shots. You have to give credit where credit is due. They played well. They played with an edge. We missed shots and could’ve definitely played better,” Noah said. “There are a lot of shots I wish I could have back. I’m sure a lot of guys feel the same way. We had some good looks that we missed. They hit. It’s part of the game.”
But at 3-3 on the home stand, with losses to a blue-collar Memphis team that is just as gritty, a blowout loss to San Antonio and Monday’s defeat, the Bulls are still in fourth place in the East with just under a month to go in the regular season. The crucial six-game stretch, if they succumbed to the likes of Miami and Houston, could have been disastrous in terms of playoff positioning, but instead they remain on solid footing.
“It tells you exactly where you are. The Memphis game, we had a seven-point lead with I believe it was four minutes left in the third. Open three, we missed. They came down, made. We didn’t close that quarter out well. It cost us, right? And the San Antonio game, we played very poorly at the start, got in a big hole. This game, I thought we did a lot of good things in this game. We didn’t cover the line like we would have liked to do and we didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would have liked to. But it’s a make-or-miss league. As long as the ball moves and it’s your shot, we want you to take it. Sometimes you have to look at what the defense is doing. They were trapping the pick-and-roll, they were swarming Taj and that’s why it’s so important to have shooting,” said Thibodeau, now rationalizing the loss a bit more. “They’re very well-balanced. They’re a top-five team on offense and on defense, and extremely well-coached and they play together, they play hard and I think the biggest thing is playing with that edge. I thought last night they had a tough game and then they came right back tonight, and I could see right away that they were ready to go and oftentimes, that’s the difference and particularly with us, when you’re short-handed, you can never lose sight of how hard you have to play and you have to play with great intensity for 48 minutes. A two-or-three bad minute stretch against an opponent like this is going to really hurt you and it did, just because of the way they can shoot the three. If you’re slow getting back or you’re slow reacting out of a double team and now your weak side is pulled in or if you’re gifting them points by not getting back or defensive threes, those are things we have to correct.”
Thibodeau’s players had varied views about how the team fared.
“I think we’re in a good place, man. We played six good teams, championship-caliber teams. There’s things obviously we can learn from and prepare for the playoffs, which is always important. But I thought we’re doing some things very well, too. So for us, it’s a learning experience and we get a chance to keep getting better, and we have more games to go, a chance to sharpen up our stuff even more and as the playoffs get near, we’ll get better and better,” Carlos Boozer told CSNChicago.com. “Every game at this point. Every game, we can either move up or stay in the same place, or if you lose, move down. So for us, we’re focused on winning. We’re trying to get that third spot if we can. That’s our goal, trying to move up. We’ve still got games where we can get it done. Now, obviously we need Toronto to lose a few. That’s part of basketball. But we’re going to do our part, make our run to get that third spot.”
Noah added: “I would’ve liked it better if we had won a couple games. But 3-3, we’ll take it. We have to move forward. I wish we could have this game back. I wish we could play those guys again. But it is what it is.”
The nightly triple-double threat--Noah finished with nine points, 12 rebounds and nine assists--took the loss hard enough that he wouldn't even look forward to the Bulls' next game, Wednesday at Philadelphia to face the hapless 76ers, losers of a franchise-record 21 games in a row.