Thunder not fooling around against NBA’s elite
OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Brooks is a walking, talking coaching cliché.
He doesn’t wear a whistle around his neck and he doesn’t carry a clipboard with him at all times, but the rest of it is pretty spot on. Pregame chats are choked with the one-game-at-a-time comments that seem more appropriate coming from Gene Hackman’s tour de force performance of Norman Dale than an NBA coach.
His postgame chats are regularly marinated in phrases like “effort,” “100 percent” and “attitude.” A veritable stew of predictability with equal parts staleness and routine. Hold the personality.
Drier than August, the Oklahoma City Thunder coach doesn’t let much more than a smile crack when he has a microphone under his nose.
But when the generally prosaic Brooks admitted to have penciled a circle around this stretch of games when he saw the schedule before the season, it doesn’t mean Brooks has loosened up. It means he’s human.
Before the season, this 10-game swing against a handful of the league’s elite was notable. And while Brooks will downplay another win, saying the Thunder’s 92-78 victory Sunday over the Bulls was “efficient,” the rest of the country doesn’t have to.
Forget the pencil this time. Circle this in ink:
The Thunder are emerging from a death march of games, not bloodied, but better. Their undressing Sunday of Chicago was just another point in a case file that’s getting thicker by the game.
“These last 10 games, we’ve been playing at a high level,” Thunder guard James Harden said. “Being physical on the defensive end and our offense has been clicking, too.”
On Sunday, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant came out as the aggressors and the rest of the team played the same. The result was a game in which the Bulls never led, and trailed by as much as 30. A national television audience saw another sellout crowd rise for a standing ovation midway through the third quarter. After a defensive stop.
How impressive? Durant and Westbrook had 53 points combined after three quarters vs. the Bulls’ 51, and the Thunder led by 29. It was so good even Rumble the furry bison Thunder mascot made a behind-the-back, half-court shot before the start of the fourth quarter and so bad for the Bulls that classic grinder, coach Tom Thibodeau, didn’t even stand up in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s disappointing because they kicked our (tails),” Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “That hasn’t happened to us in a long time. For us to lose like that is bad. Not that any game is more important as others, but, obviously, this was a game between the best team in the East and the best in the West. It’s more disappointing knowing that.”
And now the rest of the league will know this: No team is playing better, against better competition than the Thunder, who are officially on a heater.
Make it six wins in a row now and victories over Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers and now Chicago in an eight-day span. Next up: Monday at home against Memphis and then road games Wednesday at Miami and Friday at Indiana — three more playoff teams.
“I don’t know,” said Durant, when asked if the Thunder were playing its best basketball of the year, lapsing into some familiar phrasing when he added, “Taking it a game at a time. Trying to improve every game. We’re playing extremely hard and that makes up for a lot of different things. It was a good win.”
Good because the Thunder played at a high level while forcing Chicago to play one of its worst games of the year.
Sure, the Bulls aren’t the same team, don’t have the same spark and aren’t at full strength without the injured Derrick Rose, but Sunday wasn’t about Rose. It was about the Thunder playing with a high level of focus, intensity and consistency — the kind of descriptors Brooks generally likes to lob out there.
“We are a good basketball team,” Brooks allowed himself to say. “We came out with some toughness.”
That toughness stung Chicago. The Bulls came into Sunday won six of seven games. They have been without Rose for the past 10 games. Still, in that span, the Bulls grabbed wins over Miami, Philadelphia, Orlando and Atlanta.
None of that seemed apparent Sunday as the Thunder starters enjoyed the fourth quarter from the bench and the sellout crowd of 18,203 howled with delight.
“Their numbers say what they are,” Thibodeau said of the Thunder. “There’s not much they don’t have. They play hard. They play unselfishly and they have a number of guys who hurt us. We didn’t take much away.”