Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 23-59. That was the fourth-worst record in the entire NBA, ahead of only the Kings (17-65), Clippers (19-63) and Wizards (19-65). As of last night’s win over the Bulls in the United Center, the Thunder are 19-15.
What many people may not yet realize about this young squad is that they have become a top-notch defensive unit. Seriously. They rank 9th in Forced Turnovers Per Game (15.3), 8th in Defensive Efficiency (101.3 Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions), and 4th in Blocked Shots Per Game (6.0). Moreover, their opponents convert only 59 percent of their shots at the rim. That’s the 9th best mark in the league, which is especially impressive since their opponents attempt the fourth-most shots at the rim per game (29.4).
I bring all this up because the Thunder won last night because they shut the Bulls down in the second half, holding them to only 33 points in the final 24 minutes. The key was the third quarter, when Oklahoma City outscored Chicago 32-14. And they did that by protecting the rim. Like, with a vengeance. The Bulls were getting into the paint at will, but they could not convert. Chicago missed an astonishing 13 layups and tip shots in that third quarter, five of which were blocked.
For the game, the Bulls missed an astounding 29 of 53 shots at the rim. The Thunder basically built a brick wall around the basket. It really was an impressive display of interior defense…unfortunately.
And make no mistake: every missed layup seemed to suck the life out of the Bulls, especially on defense. They were a step slow in their rotations, and the Thunder made them pay for it. Rookie James Harden drilled three three-pointers in a three-minute stretch that spanned the end of the fourth quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Those were game-breakers. Chicago was down only 70-62 before Harden hit his first triple. By the time he knocked down number three, the Bulls were behind 82-66.
That may as well have been the game. The Bulls are not good enough offensively — 29th in Offensive Efficiency — to play catchup against good defensive teams, especially when they’re rattled. And the Thunder’s defense definitely had them rattled. Plus, Oklahoma City made every hustle play in the second half. By the numbers, the Bulls had a huge advantage on the offensive boards (25-13), but the Thunder grabbed nine of their offensive rebounds in the second half. And every one of them was significant.
The Bulls also got next to nothing out of their bench. Chicago’s reserves scored only 12 points on 5-for-27 shooting. Tyrus Thomas returned to form, going 3-for-12 from the field. Nine of his shots were jumpers, and seven of them were 16-23 feet away from the basket. At one point, he tried to make a complicated one-on-one move and got picked clean by Nick Collison.
In the final analysis, the Bulls simply got outplayed, outhustled and shut down defensively by a better team. And, for all the fun of that four-game win streak, it’s pretty clear they are still very much a work in progress.
Former Bull Factor:
You may remember Thabo Sefolosha as the player who almost got DNP-CD’d out of the league as a token member of the Bulls. But his career has been revived in Oklahoma City, and last night he had a nice little revenge game against his former team: 7 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, and some amped up defense against D-Rose in what turned out to be the decisive third quarter. Sefolosha held Rose to 0-for-4 shooting in that quarter, which completely disrupted Chicago’s offense.
Royce of Daily Thunder: “If I weren’t looking at the score every six seconds, I would have thought Oklahoma City trailed by at least 15 points in the third quarter. Chicago was absolutely pounded the Thunder on the glass (11 offensive rebounds in the third quarter) and just appeared to be abusing OKC. But the Thunder was actually ahead four. And actually had complete control of the game. In the second half, the Thunder held the Bulls to just 33 points. That’s 14 in the third, 19 in the fourth. Meanwhile, OKC scored 51 in the second half. That right there people, is a good formula to winning.”