The timing couldn't have been worse.
Two days after posting their worst defensive performance since before the Tom Thibodeau era, Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls welcomed an Oklahoma City Thunder team also looking to bounce back to the United Center. That would be the same Thunder team with two of the league's top scorers and the second most efficient offense in the NBA, a far more dangerous opponent than the Hornets squad that had miraculously dropped 130 points on them Tuesday night.
Tuesday's woes carried over early on. The Thunder opened the contest 8-for-10 and appeared well on their way to a 30-point quarter, something that happened in all four stanzas against the Hornets. The energy that Jimmy Butler promised would be on display after the lackluster performance in Charlotte was non-existent, as the offense settled for jumpers, missing nine of their 13 attempts.
But Oklahoma City's nine-point lead wouldn't last. And after the Bulls' 104-98 victory over Kevin Durant and the Thunder, it's as if that first six-minute stretch never happened. For whatever reason Hoiberg's group flipped a switch, limiting Oklahoma City to 40 percent shooting the rest of the night and showing that promised energy on their way to a third straight home win to begin the year.
"It showed that those guys care. It’s a bunch of competitive guys in that locker room that all, I think, felt a little embarrassed probably with the way the last game went," Hoiberg said after the game.
Tuesday's contest was of course an outlier - the Bulls hadn't allowed that many points since March 2010 - but it also wasn't indicative of how Hoiberg's group had played up until that point. Though the preseason talk of Hoiberg implementing a run-and-gun offensive philosophy dominated headlines, this was largely the same Bulls group that ranked among the NBA's elite defensively. Tom Thibodeau or no Tom Thibodeau, the talent was still there for the Bulls to defend well.
It also came as no surprise that the two players leading the charge were the players largely responsible for creating the Bulls' defensive identity. Joakim Noah showed as much energy and bounce as he has all season, logging a game-high +16 in 12 minutes off the bench. The Bulls went from trailing 17-13 to leading 41-34 in his first stretch, and the Bulls closed the half holding the Thunder to three points in the final two minutes after Noah checked back in.
"He was awesome just getting after it," Hoiberg said of Noah, who finished with four points, seven rebounds, four assists and a block. "Jo’s out there making plays, he’s a great defender, he’s a rock down there, he’s so emotional. He just puts out the overall energy."
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Noah got the ball rolling in the first half, while Jimmy Butler took care of the rest.
Though Durant finished with 33 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter that allowed the Thunder to tie the game late, he needed 29 shots to get there. Butler hounded the 2014 MVP relentlessly, setting the tone in the opening quarter in which he picked up two fouls. That aggressiveness didn't cease when Butler returned early in the second quarter, with Hoiberg rolling the dice that the man who made the promise for energy would do it without fouling.
He did. Butler forced Durant to shoot over his out-stretched arm, with a hand in his face coming off every down screen. Durant hit his fair share, as the league's best scoring forward is prone to do, but missed two of his last three as the Bulls ended the game on a 10-4 run.
"(Durant) is 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."
Thursday could have gone just like Tuesday did. After all, if Jeremy Lamb and Al Jefferson gave the Bulls trouble, no one would have blamed them if Durant and Russell Westbrook did, too. But Westbrook was limited, by his standards, to 20 points and 10 assists, Durant shot under 50 percent for the first time since opening night against the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka had just six points after halftime. Though it's still a work in progress for Hoiberg's group, Thursday was a promise kept to show fight and energy on the defensive end against a team that rarely finds itself outplayed.
"The way our guys defended and battled and stuck with the game plan even though (Oklahoma City) hit some shots early on in the contest," Hoiberg said, "I thought was huge."