The biggest concern about the new and improved Oklahoma City roster was a lack of defensive stoppers. The Thunder got rid of Kendrick Perkins and have been without Steven Adams thanks to an injury, but offered no suitable replacement for either stalwart.
Thursday night it came back to haunt the Thunder, as the short-handed Bulls dealt Oklahoma City a deflating 108-105 loss in Chicago.
E'Twaun Moore hit a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to give the Bulls a 107-105 lead. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Dion Waiters passed Russell Westbrook right into a double-team, which forced Westbrook to step out of bounds, ending any hope of a miracle finish.
Westbrook's triple-double streak came to a disappointing end, but for some time it looked like the Thunder would at least still leave the Windy City with the win. Then OKC failed to shut the door in the fourth quarter and didn't even leave with a victory.
Oklahoma City allowed the Bulls to shoot an incredible 12-of-15 from the field in the fourth quarter for a 36-point period. The Thunder had entered the period up seven points and led by as many as 10 on two occasions. But the Thunder's inability to play anything resembling defense allowed the Bulls to climb back into the game, thanks to Moore's career-high 19 points and Nikola Mirotic's 26 points off the bench.
The tandem had success all night against the Thunder, as Moore finished the game 9-of-10 from the field and Mirotic was 14-of-16 from the free throw line. But in the fourth quarter, both played the entire period and combined for 27 points.
Despite not having a triple-double, Westbrook still had 43 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, an incredible performance considering he was playing for the second straight night after an overtime win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. Unlike Wednesday, though, Westbrook didn't get the same help from the rest of his teammates.
Sure, Serge Ibaka bounced back nicely from a terrible showing against the Sixers to score 25 points and grab nine rebounds. But D.J. Augustin was the only other Thunder player to finish in double figures, and all 10 of his points came in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
Even though Ibaka had a terrific night, Westbrook opted to not pass to him after a screen-and-roll between the two in the final 10 seconds with the Thunder up one. Ibaka came wide open, but Westbrook kept the ball, forcing up a contested jumper that didn't draw iron and resulted in a shot clock violation.
The raw shooting numbers don't completely illustrate how bad the Thunder's defense was all night, but a 54-30 advantage for Chicago in paint points certainly does. Many of those baskets were open layups off backcuts or drives to the rim when no one was home protecting the rim.
Others came courtesy of Pau Gasol, who torched Enes Kanter for 21 points and 12 rebounds, underscoring Kanter's biggest flaw as a player.
It was the third close loss in a week to a good team for Oklahoma City, so that's nothing to panic about. But the Thunder's defensive shortcomings have been worrisome and it seems the Thunder have addressed one issue—the bench—while creating another—defense. The return of Steven Adams will help solve that problem, but he can't play defense for everyone.
If OKC wants to hold on to a playoff spot, it will need to become the defense-first team Scott Brooks says it is. The Thunder weren't on Thursday night, and the result was not surprising because of that.