For just over three quarters, the Bulls (37-30) kept pace with the explosive Thunder (49-18), but being on the wrong end of a 13-0 fourth-quarter run led to a 97-85 defeat Monday night at the United Center in the final contest of a six-game home stand.
Getting off to a quick start against Oklahoma City behooved the Bulls, as the visitors were not only coming off a blowout home loss Sunday night and were looking for revenge, but with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook (17 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) back in the lineup after a one-game hiatus for rest purposes, their explosive athleticism would pose a challenge to the slower-paced hosts, as usual.
The frontcourt trio of Carlos Boozer (12 points, 11 rebounds), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (11 points) and All-Star center Joakim Noah (nine points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) was a focal point in the early going but was countered by the energetic play of Westbrook and the scoring expertise of All-Star counterpart Kevin Durant (35 points, 12 rebounds, five assists). It became a close-knit affair, but a Durant jumper with two seconds remaining in the opening period put the Bulls at a 23-21 deficit after a quarter of play.
The reserve duo of D.J. Augustin (10 points) and Taj Gibson (16 points, seven rebounds) sparked the Bulls at the outset of the second frame, but the contributions of Reggie Jackson (11 points) and veteran Caron Butler (12 points) — a recent acquisition after he was bought out by Milwaukee last month — ensured the contest remained tight. Nazr Mohammed (eight rebounds), a former Thunder player, also made an impact as a rebounding force and defensive presence.
Oklahoma City got its transition game going, leading to an 8-0 run to widen the gap and a subsequent Bulls timeout. But the Bulls wouldn’t let the game be blown open, and thanks to Augustin’s playmaking ability — he found starting guards Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler (13 points) for corner 3-pointers off baseline penetration late in the period — they only trailed, 47-45, at the intermission.
After the break, the Bulls immediately seized the lead on a Hinrich triple on the first possession of the third quarter, part of a quick 5-0 spurt to begin the second half. A back-and-forth stretch ensued with the two teams trading baskets after neither even shot 40 percent from the floor before halftime, but the Bulls couldn’t sustain their offensive momentum and the Thunder surged to build a slim cushion behind the explosive tandem of Westbrook and Durant, not to mention the offensively underrated Serge Ibaka (15 points), known more for his shot-blocking ability.
The Bulls hit one of their periodic scoring droughts at precisely the wrong time, and Oklahoma City capitalized, going on a Durant-fueled 13-2 run to extend the margin of separation. While the Bulls managed to respond before things got too out of hand, frequently going to Boozer on the interior, they were still behind heading into the final stanza, 74-67.
Storming out of the gates to start the fourth quarter, after a pair of Ibaka free throws, the Bulls went on an 8-0 run to start the period and pull to within a single point, prompting an Oklahoma City timeout, which was immediately followed by five consecutive Thunder points. Even after a Bulls timeout, the bleeding didn’t immediately stop, as the home team went scoreless for six-and-a-half minutes of action entering the game’s stretch run.
The triumvirate of Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant, whose streak of consecutive 25-point games was extended to 32 contests, were major factors in the visitors not allowing the Bulls, who now hit the road for a pair of games at Philadelphia and Indiana, to end their longest stretch in Chicago of the season on a high note.