A response was necessary after a submission led to embarrassment in Charlotte, and the Bulls put forth a requisite effort against perhaps the deepest team in the league.
Derrick Rose put his stamp on the game after Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah kept them in it early, with the Bulls winning, 104-98, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, quieting the calls for roster upheaval and sending a temporary shock of relief back through the fanbase.
Rose scored 29 with seven assists and five rebounds, his best performance of the season against the top competition in his physical equal, Russell Westbrook.
“He was phenomenal, I’m happy for him putting on a performance like he did tonight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “A game like tonight will be great for his confidence.”
Ten straight for Rose came in the fourth when the Bulls needed it most, including jumpers off defensive switches that put him against Thunder center Enes Kanter, not the most inclined fellow on that end.
Taj Gibson had a crucial stretch in the fourth where he forced a travel on Nick Collison, caught an alley-oop dunk from Noah and hit a wing jumper, right when it appeared the Bulls energy was wearing off and the Thunder stalking.
“We showed some resiliency,” said Noah, who scored four points with seven rebounds and four assists. “It was alarming. What happened in Charlotte was alarming.”
Butler scored 21 of his 26 in the first half, when the Thunder came in intent on keeping the Bulls’ morale down. And the Thunder hitting eight of the first 10 shots didn’t bode well for an antsy crowd.
Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic struggled early, as Hoiberg went with Doug McDermott as a surprise starter in place of Tony Snell because the Bulls had been so prone to slow starts the last few games.
“That’s as tough a team to defend, I think them and Golden State,” Hoiberg said. “In this league with the superstars they have and (Serge) Ibaka knocking down shots like he can.”
Ibaka, who kept getting open when Mirotic had trouble tracking him, scored 17 points with six rebounds and two blocks, while Steven Adams missed the fourth quarter with a back injury, a crucial subtraction because he was much more equipped to defend a point guard on a switch.
He played his part in helping bully the Bulls early, blocking two shots of his own.
But it was Noah’s energy that picked this team up off the mat, when it very well could’ve went the way of Tuesday’s disaster in Charlotte. Noah only scored two points in the half but grabbed six rebounds, including every loose ball, and his mere presence lifted the Bulls’ spirits.
“We finally started getting the loose balls,” Hoiberg said. “Jo was a plus-16 at halftime, he was huge for us. Noah is out there making plays, he’s so emotional and is a rock for us.”
Then Rose got going, blowing by his workout partner Westbrook for layups and going through a stretch where he made six of 11 shots after a tough-luck start. That combined with Butler’s 21 in the first half gave them a seven-point lead with 24 left to play.
“We push each other,” Rose said. “Our workouts are extremely hard, and it's paying off. The way I see him playing and the way that he's controlling the league has been great. For me to work out with him, it's the amount of time I need to catch my rhythm.”
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When Durant seemed to stalk the Bulls with another long triple, three of his game-high 33 points, Butler replied with one of his own to push the lead back to eight.
But Durant and the Thunder refused to acquiesce at the end of a four-game in five-night stretch.
A fast break dunk for Durant after a Butler missed jumper brought the lead back to two for the Bulls with less than 5:46 remaining.
They couldn’t stop Durant, the league’s most impossible cover, as he scored 33 but took 29 shots to get there, defended admirably by Butler.
“He’s something else, and Jimmy did, I thought, as good a job as you could do to get a body on him, make him take tough shots,” Hoiberg said. “He’s just one of those guys that’s a special, special talent.“
Westbrook had an off night by his standards, with 20 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in 39 minutes.
But when an early season gut-check was needed, the Bulls answered the call, as disaster was looming if they didn’t.