OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In a little over a week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have broken out of a midseason slump and made their case to be best team in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook scored 27 points, Kevin Durant added 26 points and 10 rebounds and the Thunder used an electrifying third quarter to beat Chicago 92-78 on Sunday and move within a game of the Bulls for the NBA's best record.
One week earlier, the Thunder handed Miami its most lopsided defeat yet this season. Then they were even more dominating against the league-leading Bulls.
"Their numbers say what they are. There's not much they don't have," Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. "They play hard, they play unselfishly, they play smart, they're tough. Their defense is excellent."
The Thunder were scuffling in late March, having lost five out of 10 games while trying to put together a consistent stretch.
In a pair of Sunday games on their home court, they've outclassed the two other teams in the thick of the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA playoffs.
"We just picked up the intensity, I think. Playing hard. I can't stop saying it," Durant said. "Every possession, we've just been trying to scramble as hard as we can on the defensive end and move the ball on the offensive end. We've got to keep it up."
Oklahoma City beat the Heat 103-87 last Sunday.
The Bulls, who had not lost by more than 17 this season, only avoided their biggest loss of the season because the Thunder pulled their starters in the fourth quarter and reserve John Lucas III hit two 3-pointers in the final minute.
"It was disappointing, not that any game is more important than others. But obviously this was a game between the best team in the East and the best team in the West," Chicago center Joakim Noah said.
Lucas had 19 points to lead the way for the Bulls (42-12), who played without All-Star point guard Derrick Rose for the 10th straight game. Chicago is now 14-6 this season without the reigning MVP and 7-3 during his current absence with a groin injury.
Kyle Korver replaced a slumping Ronnie Brewer in the starting lineup and scored 14.
"Derrick's a great player. Obviously, we prefer to have him," Thibodeau said. "But we have more than enough. I was more concerned tonight with the mental aspect. I thought we made a lot of mental mistakes."
The Thunder (40-12) pulled away by outscoring Chicago 31-12 in the third quarter, allowing the Bulls to make only five of their 21 shots and forcing five turnovers. Oklahoma City clinched a playoff berth in the process, with the help of tiebreakers over the teams fighting for the Western Conference's final spot in the postseason.
"We know it's going to be tough for those guys without Derrick but they've been playing very well without him, winning some big games," Durant said. "We couldn't take them lightly."