OKLAHOMA CITY—Short their entire starting perimeter group, not including Derick Rose, by halftime of Thursday night’s game, the second in a back-to-back set against two of the better squads in the Western Conference, the increasingly undermanned Bulls (9-16) once again put up a valiant effort, but didn’t have nearly enough firepower to keep up with a talented Thunder (21-4) group, falling 107-95, at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the team’s fourth consecutive loss and 13th defeat in their last 16 outings.
Even without leading scorer Luol Deng—the All-Star small forward was sidelined with a recurrence of his Achilles’ injury, joining injured point guard Kirk Hinrich as unavailable for action—the Bulls kept pace with the high-octane Thunder in the early going of the contest.
All-Star center Joakim Noah (23 points, 12 rebounds) got off to a hot start, scoring nine points by the midway point of the opening period. But he was countered by the play of elite scorer Kevin Durant (32 points, nine rebounds, six assists), who also got assistance from the backcourt tandem of fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook (20 points, 10 assists) and defensive-minded swingman Thabo Sefolosha (10 points, five rebounds, four assists), an ex-Bull.
The Thunder’s slim cushion ballooned into a double-digit lead, as their second unit, led by explosive combo guard Reggie Jackson (18 points), outplayed their counterparts, and at the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls faced a 35-24 deficit.
The onslaught continued in the second quarter, as the backup-guard combination of Jackson and sharpshooter Jeremy Lamb kept the pressure on the turnover-prone Bulls, though rookie swingman Tony Snell (10 points, eight rebounds), getting extended playing time with Deng out, was a relative bright spot. The Bulls’ injury woes were exacerbated during the course of the game, as Jimmy Butler, only four games removed from being on the shelf for almost a month with a right turf-toe injury, suffered a right-ankle injury
But somehow, the Bulls persevered, as the trio of Noah, Snell and top reserve Taj Gibson led the way, eventually cutting it to a three-point game, 47-44, by virtue of a 14-4 run, culminated by a D.J. Augustin (15 points, five assists) four-point play with 3:37 left in the second quarter. The Thunder again acquired some breathing room, but thanks to the late-period sharpshooting of Mike Dunleavy Jr., (11 points, six assists) who started in Deng’s place, the Bulls were only down 55-52, at the intermission.
After the break, the Thunder gradually widened the gap, as Westbrook and Durant carried the offensive burden. A saving grace for the Bulls, their ability to get to the foul line, was relatively equalized in the third quarter—the home team began to get to the charity stripe, too—but just when it seemed as if the Thunder had complete control of the contest and would be able to coast for the remainder of the outing, a rally led by Taj Gibson (16 points, six rebounds) made it a single-digit affair again, before heading into the final stanza behind by a still-manageable 84-72 margin.
A 7-0 run early in the fourth quarter in the increasingly physical affair showed that the Bulls, buoyed by Augustin’s outside shooting and the interior play of Gibson and Noah, wouldn’t go down without a fight. But the Thunder’s second unit didn’t let the Bulls stay within striking distance, and after the reinsertion of Westbrook and Durant, the Bulls’ chances significantly dwindled down the stretch.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau seemed to realize that fact and took out Noah, who had a monster performance, and Augustin, currently the team’s starting point guard, with under four minutes to play, effectively waving the white flag after yet another partially admirable effort with little results to show for it.