With the NBA's reigning MVP sidelined, Sunday's showdown between conference leaders lacked the luster of what was intended to be a made-for-television matchup.
And anyone who tuned in to the nationally televised broadcast on ABC was promptly treated to a dud.
Unless, of course, you're a Thunder fan.
From the opening tip, the Thunder took advantage of Derrick Rose's absence and ran all over the Chicago Bulls before cruising to a 92-78 win inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The final score was far from indicative of how thoroughly the Thunder beat up the Bulls. Oklahoma City led by as many as 30 points and never trailed against a Bulls team that, at 14-6 without Rose, clearly has found a way to still be dominant even while its All-Star point guard nurses a groin injury.
“At times, you can have a letdown when someone's best player is missing,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “But he's missed…10 games so we were prepared.”
The Thunder hasn't exactly excelled at similar mental tests — see losses to San Antonio without Manu Ginobili (twice), Atlanta without Joe Johnson and Houston without Kyle Lowry — but used this showcase to send a statement.
By halftime, ABC's analysts were gushing over OKC, calling the Thunder the best team in the league and point guard Russell Westbrook the best of the best at the position.
After the game, Brooks simply called it a sound victory.
“That was an efficient win for us,” Brooks said. “There's no question we played our best defense of the year.”
With swarming defense that started with intense ball pressure and quick rotations, the Thunder registered countless deflections and suffocated the Bulls. The result was the Thunder forcing Chicago into one bad shot after another before the Bulls ultimately finished with a season-low 33 percent shooting clip.
At halftime, the Bulls sat on just 39 points and ended up two points away from matching their season-low in total points.
“I liked the way our guys got after the basketball,” Brooks said. “We challenged every pass. We challenged every shot. And we rebounded the ball better as the game went on.”
Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 27 points after setting the tone with 10 points in an ultra-aggressive first quarter. Westbrook also had five assists, four steals and three rebounds without turning it over a single time in his 30 minutes of work.
“I just took shots the game gave me and tried to get our team started off on the right foot,” Westbrook said.
Kevin Durant added 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting to go with 10 rebounds in 32 minutes. James Harden was the only other Thunder player in double digits scoring with 11 points. But the Thunder's offensive efficiency (48.6 percent), coupled with its defensive dominance, was plenty to spur the Thunder to an 80-51 lead through three quarters.
It was the Thunder's sixth straight win and pulled OKC within a game of Chicago for the league's best record. More importantly, with the teams meeting only once this season, the win gave the Thunder the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bulls should the teams finish tied in the standings at the end of the season. The team with the best regular season record will be awarded home-court advantage through the NBA Finals.
“We're trying to win it,” Rose said. “We're definitely trying to win it. Hopefully we get it. That's what we're fighting for. We've got 11 or so games left. Hopefully, we can close it out.”
The Thunder, though, clearly intends on making it tough.
“That's our goal,” said Kendrick Perkins.