Thunder Battles Back, Falls Just Short Against Bulls

CHICAGO - Until the clock strikes zero, the Thunder plays its relentless, physical, defensive minded style to the fullest.

On Tuesday night the Thunder fell to the Chicago Bulls at the United Center 94-89, but trimmed a nine-point fourth quarter deficit and pulled the game back to within three points on four separate occasions in the final minute of action. The Bulls’ Carlos Boozer hit an extremely difficult turnaround, fade-away jumper with 34.4 seconds remaining to push the lead to five, keeping Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team at arm’s length, despite a valiant effort.

“I thought we competed,” Brooks said. “One thing I know about our guys, they’re always going to compete and they’re going to battle. They’re going to make a game out of it… We don’t care who we put on the floor, we’re going to put out guys that are going to play winning basketball.

As Nick Collison described earlier in training camp, it is important for the Thunder to re-install the requisite mental toughness and determination each year. Just as critical to the team’s success heading into each season are the improvements each player has made to his game. Tonight, Serge Ibaka showed that he spent the summer improving his offensive assertiveness.

“I thought Serge was really good,” Brooks said. “Serge really showed another jump in his growth by just having a presence and demanding the ball and getting the ball off the rim and rebounding the ball very well.”

Ibaka started the game shooting 5-for-7 en route to 10 first quarter points, and finished the contest with 24 points and eight rebounds on an efficient 10-for-17 shooting. He even knocked down a three-pointer from the corner, his third such made jumper in the past two games. Guard James Harden said that Ibaka’s continual development and commitment to practicing his jump shot is paying dividends.

“He’s been working on that,” Harden said. “Serge is probably one of the best big shooters in the NBA, especially from the mid-range shot. He’s been working on the corner three and expanding another part of his game. It’s great for our team.”

Harden himself didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but managed to impact the game in other ways by pulling in seven rebounds and dishing out seven assists. In general, players across the board made positive contributions, like Perry Jones who chipped in 14 points and Eric Maynor who went 3-for-4 from the three-point line on his way to 13 points.

Perhaps the most noteworthy development was the first 11 minutes of action center Hasheem Thabeet played, when he racked up six points and eight rebounds. For a 7-foot-3 big man still getting used to the Thunder’s style and system, it is good to see production, particularly in going against difficult interior players like Boozer and Joakim Noah.

“I’m just going out there and competing,” Thabeet said. “They tell me not to settle with one day’s success. We’ve been doing great in practice. They tell me to bring it every day, and that’s what I work on. I get better every day, come over and give my all every night.”

Overall, tonight’s contest was described as an opportunity to continue to learn and grow as individuals and as a unit. In conjunction with tomorrow’s final preseason game, when the Thunder hosts the Dallas Mavericks in Wichita, KS, tonight’s game was a chance to evaluate young players, different offensive sets and lineup combinations. All of these moments are essential in preparing the Thunder for the regular season, which is just over a week away.

“I think we were getting a feel for each other,” Harden said. “It wasn’t our usual set up, but I think our guys kind of find a way, and we almost got the win… Overall it was a good learning experience.”