One of Tom Thibodeau’s favorite sayings is the Bulls have more than enough talent to win, and his players proved that numerous times last season. They went 18-9 without Derrick Rose.
But Thibodeau also knows stars win in the NBA. And, with Rose out indefinitely following knee surgery, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took over down the stretch of a taut game Thursday night.
It’s simplistic to say Durant and Westbrook, who scored 12 of the Thunder’s final 14 points, were the only reasons the Bulls dropped to 1-2 on their season-high five-game homestand after the 97-91 defeat.
But it’s also indisputable that while Durant and Westbrook were doing their thing at their end, the Bulls were passing the ball around the perimeter, searching for someone to take over.
“We battled and then we settled for some 3s,” Thibodeau said. “The game was there to be had.”
The Bulls were outscored 31-19 in the fourth quarter.
“It was a frustrating loss because we had a chance to win,” Joakim Noah said.
Durant scored 10 of his 24 points in the final period, including a step-back 17-foot jumper over Luol Deng with 19.5 seconds left that pushed the Thunder ahead by four at a critical time.
“Really tough shot,” Deng said. “I thought I was on him. He’s a great player.”
Deng scored a game-high 27 points, serving as the go-to scorer several times. But he didn’t score over the final 5:18 as the Bulls continued their offense by committee.
Richard Hamilton added 20 points, and Kirk Hinrich added 12 points and five assists while guarding Westbrook capably.
“We felt we had a mismatch with Lu in the post,” Noah said. “But [Serge] Ibaka was in the paint a lot.”
Ibaka registered four of the Thunder’s eight blocks. Players talked about 21 turnovers, but the Bulls forced 22 from the Thunder and both scored roughly the same amount off the miscues. So that canceled out.
The Bulls got little from their bench, with Nazr Mohammed and Marco Belinelli getting quick hooks during an 18-4 Thunder run that bridged the first and second quarters.
Jimmy Butler replaced Belinelli and built on his strong finish to the last game with six points, three rebounds and a career-high three assists. But Martin finished with 15 and Eric Maynor added 10 off the bench.
The Thunder took the lead for good on Westbrook’s driving layup with 2:05 left. Westbrook finished with 16 points and 12 assists while missing 15 of 22 shots.
“Overall, we played hard. We’re definitely capable,” Noah said. “Everyone who saw the game could see that. We’ll learn from this.”
Thunder 97, Bulls 91
Star of the game: Kevin Durant, Thunder, 24 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 steals
Key performers: Luol Deng, Bulls, 27 points; Richard Hamilton, Bulls, 20 points, 8 rebounds; Joakim Noah, Bulls, 9 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists; Russell Westbrook, Thunder, 16 points, 12 assists
Up next: Timberwolves at Bulls, 7 p.m. Saturday
TV/Radio: WGN/ 1000 AM