OKLAHOMA CITY – 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."
Durant and Westbrook were a combined 21-for-34 from the field and Oklahoma City shot 49 percent while limiting the Bulls to 33 percent.
Chicago came in with the NBA's best road record at 21-6 and on a seven-game road winning streak, two shy of the franchise record set during the 1995-96 season when the Bulls set an NBA record by going 72-10.
The Bulls never led, falling behind by 10 in the first period and then letting Oklahoma City score the final six points of the first half to rebuild its lead to 49-39.
"You can't do that on the road against a team like this," Thibodeau said. "That's all they need."
It quickly got worse.
Westbrook was at his best during a 13-0 run that put the Thunder firmly in control in the opening 5 minutes of the second half. He hit a jumper, a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer during the burst but his most dynamic play came when he zoomed in front of Luol Deng's crosscourt pass, snagged it and whipped it back inbounds to a teammate to get the crowd on its feet.
Durant followed Noah's three-point play with a 3-pointer and a two-handed slam off of Westbrook's alley-oop from half court, and Oklahoma City kept pouring it on.
Serge Ibaka had a right-handed dunk, Nick Collison had a two-handed slam while getting fouled and Westbrook threw down a right-handed jam over 7-footer Omer Asik, thumping his chest twice after he came down. Durant topped it off by hitting a 3-pointer to close the quarter and make it 80-51.
The Bulls trailed by 30 for the first time this season in the fourth quarter, before Chicago's bench cut into the deficit against Oklahoma City's reserves.
"We had a problem to start the game, a problem at the end of the first quarter, a problem at the end of the second quarter, problems to start the third quarter," Thibodeau said. "Against a quality team, you can't overcome that."
Notes: Chicago's Richard Hamilton (right shoulder) was a game-time decision. He has missed 14 straight games and played in only 16 of Chicago's 54 games with a variety of injuries. "I've just got to be convinced. It's more me," Thibodeau said. "He thinks he's ready but I just want to make sure we're smart." ... The Bulls have not had consecutive losses in 86 games, the second-longest streak in NBA history behind Utah's 95-game run from November 1997 to March 1999. ... Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks had high praise for his coaching counterpart. Thibodeau was an assistant coach in Minnesota and New York when Brooks played for those teams. "The guy has no life," Brooks said after a series of compliments. "Even when he was young as an assistant, he never wanted to go out to dinner with me. He had things to do. He's boring." Thibodeau wouldn't argue but retorted it was "from coaching him."