CHICAGO — Three poor possessions at the start of the fourth quarter quickly put all momentum on Chicago’s side and threatened to extend the Thunder’s misery into a second straight night.
Reggie Jackson threw the ball away.
Derek Fisher missed a deep 3 early in the shot clock.
Jackson clanged another jumper.
The Bulls burned the Thunder after each empty trip, trimming a nine-point deficit to one in just two minutes.
The home team was juiced. Its crowd suddenly was jacked.
But the Thunder didn’t panic.
Instead, the team did something it has struggled to do consistently since the All-Star break.
Oklahoma City buckled down on defense.
The Thunder pulled away from the pesky Bulls with a 16-1 run before walking out of United Center on Monday night with an impressive 97-85 win.
During the game-changing stretch, OKC held Chicago scoreless for 6 1/2 minutes and hounded the Bulls into 11 straight misses and three critical turnovers.
“We did a good job as a group,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We kept our composure.”
The Bulls botched some open opportunities, but the Thunder’s length and scrambling defense definitely made an impact. The Thunder sealed off the paint and forced the Bulls to take their chances with long jumpers. Five of Chicago’s 11 misses during that spurt came from 3-point range. The other six were from within 10 feet, a high-percentage area that the Thunder shut down by swarming to the ball whenever the Bulls did get to the basket.
“You give yourself a chance when you play defense like that,” Brooks said.
The performance might have been just the thing the Thunder needed to see after watching Dallas trample its defense 24 hours earlier in a stunning 23-point home loss. If nothing else, it perhaps would serve as a much-needed pick-me-up at the start of this three-game trip.
“We know what it looks like,” said Russell Westbrook, who returned from a night’s rest to score 17 points with nine rebounds and nine assists. “We know what it is. We’ve done it before. So it’s not like we’re surprised that we did it. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
When the Thunder did it, everything else fell into place. Defense led to offense as opposed to the Thunder relying simply on outscoring the Bulls, and once the shots started dropping a close game quickly transformed into a rout.
Most impressive at the other end was how 10 of the Thunder’s 16 points during the decisive run came off assists. Nick Collison fired a pass to Fisher for a 3-pointer, Fisher found Serge Ibaka for an uncontested dunk, Westbrook did the same for Kevin Durant and Westbrook capped the run with a drive-and-kick to Ibaka for a corner 3 that put OKC ahead 92-76 with 3:14 left to play.
By then, much of the sellout crowd of 22,261 had already bolted for the exits.
In a matter of minutes, the Thunder went from three bad possessions nearly blowing another game to a brilliant finish.
“It definitely takes mental toughness, especially on the road,” said Durant, who scored a game-high 35 points, his 32nd straight game with at least 25 points. “We wanted to stay poised, knowing that this game is about runs and they made theirs at the end of the second and also in that fourth. We just stayed with it, coach drew up some good plays and we were able to execute.”