If there’s one team that can relate to all that’s been thrown at the Thunder this season, it’s the Chicago Bulls.
They lost their best player to a season-ending injury. They traded their second-best player before the deadline. They brought in a new player in mid-season for relief.
It’s almost an exact match to the hand the Thunder’s been dealt, as Oklahoma City manages injuries to two starters, the continued recovery of Russell Westbrook and the integration of Caron Butler.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can empathize with OKC’s adversity and said the Thunder’s post-All-Star slippage is natural.
“I think with the Thunder, because of the type of season that they’ve had where they built up a big cushion, every team usually is going to go through it at some point during the season,” Thibodeau said. “And then it’s how you manage it.”
Thibodeau said leaning on veteran leadership is vital for teams to sustain success during difficult times. And the Thunder, he said, has that.
“Often times what ends up happening is it does give you an opportunity to give other guys a chance and they grow,” Thibodeau said.
Despite its many obstacles, Chicago entered Monday’s game against the Thunder fourth in the Eastern Conference standings at 37-29. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Thibodeau has done a great job of continuing to get the most out of his team.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Brooks said. “I played for him on two different occasions when he was an assistant coach. Great coach. You just like guys that are passionate about the game, that care about his players and he brings it every night. You know what you’re going to get. Their consistency is what makes them successful.”
Brooks, however, said having the right players is the real key to withstanding tough times.
“Don’t let any coach fool you that it’s not players,” Brooks said. “You win by having competitive players. And you win at a high level by having competitive (and) really good players. You’re not going to win in this league, no matter how good your players are, if they’re not willing to compete every possession.
“And fortunately for Thibs and myself, we have guys that compete every possession. It’s not always perfect, and there’s not times that we don’t lay an egg every now and then. But, for the most part, their team and our team, we compete every night and at a high level.”
Brooks on Bulls center Joakim Noah — “He’s playing as well as any big in the league. He has a great ability to inspire his team. And you can’t put a number on that. There’s no stat that tells you he’s a 63 percent inspirer. He inspires his team every night, and that’s a great trait to have.”
The Thunder will take Tuesday off before resuming practice Wednesday. OKC will then play at Cleveland on Thursday. The Cavs defeated the Thunder, 114-104, on Feb. 26 in Oklahoma City. Tip-off is 6 p.m.