WICHITA, Kan. — The best thing about the Thunder's final tuneup Wednesday night wasn't the test of one of the league's stingiest defenses, or the chance to evaluate a singular matchup.
It was the sheer sight of the Chicago Bulls, a team that has traveled the bumpy road the Thunder is headed down but stands as a testament to how Oklahoma City can overcome.
Consequently, the Thunder's 104-95 loss inside INTRUST Bank Arena was an afterthought. More significant was the road map for navigating life without a star that the steadfast Bulls could offer after playing an entire season without point guard Derrick Rose.
While Russell Westbrook is sidelined for at least the first month of the season, the Thunder will be forced to try to replicate the success Chicago had last season.
The situations are strangely similar.
Rose was lost for the year after tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs. Westbrook was lost for the year after tearing his meniscus in Game 2 of the 2013 playoffs.
Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season. Westbrook could miss the first 20 games this season.
“Obviously we knew going into the season that we weren't going to have him to start, so you could plan accordingly,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So once we made our free agent picks and the draft picks and the changes to the team we could plan.
“Now we didn't know he'd be out the entire season, but we had planned as if he was going to be out the entire season. And we felt if we got him back that it would be a bonus.”
There is no question Westbrook will be back this season. But the challenge for the Thunder is to persevere as a title contender in his absence. Chicago went 11-9 in its first 20 games without Rose, but the Bulls gained respect throughout the league for posting a 45-37 record and a second-round playoff appearance without him.
“We had a few months to say, ‘OK, what's our best chance of winning, and this is how we can go about it and these are the things we can try to take advantage of,'” Thibodeau said. “I think you study your team and you try to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are going to be and play to your strengths and cover up your weaknesses and figure out what gives you your best chance at winning.”
The Thunder is in the process of determining that, and flashes of a different style of play — defined most by better ball movement — colored the team's seven preseason contests.
Oklahoma City also is relying on others to take on larger roles, something the Bulls were forced to do all season. Thibodeau called that beneficial.
“Obviously we didn't want Derrick to be out,” he said. “But I think one of the byproducts was Jimmy (Butler) playing a lot more. We ran a lot more offense through (Joakim) Noah. (Carlos) Boozer was terrific. Luol (Deng) you cant say enough about.”
Bulls forward Taj Gibson emerged as a breakout performer without Rose and remembered the benefits of being able to expand his game.
“It helped a lot,” Gibson said. “Guys had a chance to play without him and work on their games. And now that he's here everybody can to elevate their game to a new level.”
Chicago's playing style, Gibson said, had to change.
“With him we kind of used his quickness and ability on fast breaks,” Gibson said of Rose. “It was kind of hard to adjust at first. We really had to lock in and put more emphasis on how we were going to get points. We went to Booz a lot. Everybody was just trying to figure out some things because when he was on the court he kind of takes on about two or three and always gets open looks for a lot of different guys. So we just had to try a bunch of different stuff.”
And when something worked, the Bulls stuck to it.
That's what Gibson said the Thunder will need to do without Westbrook.
“They just have to figure out their sweet spots, try to get easy buckets,” he said. “Go to whoever is hot. We always went with whoever was hot. Whatever play worked we ran it probably five times or more than that. We just tried to get buckets, rebound the ball and play strong defense. That was one of the main things that held us down all year.”
Of course, the biggest difference between last year's Bulls and this year's Thunder is Kevin Durant. Chicago, despite Deng and Noah being named All-Stars, didn't have nearly a talent as dominant as Durant.
“We just got to play,” Durant said. “Of course we're not going to have (Westbrook) there, but we got to rely on each other, we got to rely on our system and we just got to play. Ain't nobody going to make no excuses for us. We can't hang our heads because we don't have him. We just really got play. That's all it comes down to.”