Thunder fall flat on Christmas against the Bulls

OKLAHOMA CITY — After a puzzling 105-96 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day, the leadership of the Oklahoma City Thunder went with a simple explanation.

“Man, we didn’t have any energy to start the game or to start the third quarter,” Kevin Durant said. “And they got us.”

Why?

“I have no clue, man.”

It does seem rather confusing, considering the Thunder were in front of a charged home crowd, playing on national TV in one of the league’s feature games. But the Bulls opened the game on an 11-0 run, then started the third quarter with an 8-0 burst. They carried an 18-point lead into the fourth, and while the Thunder whittled it to six with 3:42 remaining, the frantic comeback attempt fell flat.

“Just didn’t play hard enough,” Russell Westbrook said. “We’ve got to play harder if we want to win games.”

Another one from Durant: “We just made dumb plays all night.”

“We just didn’t play hard enough on both ends,” Westbrook added. “When we play hard enough, everything takes care of itself.”

So, it seems the Thunder identified the issue. Or at least what they considered it to be. Coming off a two-game West Coast road trip, maybe there was some kind of malaise they were caught in. They were in Los Angeles for four days and came back with a recovery day on Thursday and then an early start on Christmas. They certainly did some uncharacteristic things: Westbrook missed six free throws, and Durant hit just one of six 3s when most were solid looks.

But pulling the energy card always feels like a cop-out, especially when the problem areas on Friday were ones the Thunder have dealt with throughout the season. Yes, Durant (29) and Westbrook (26) combined for 55 points. After that, Enes Kanter had 14, but no other player was in double figures. The non-Durant/Westbrook starters combined for 11 points on 5-of-22 shooting. Minus Kanter, the bench scored 16 on 6-of-18 shooting.

The Thunder had been making clear strides, winning 12 of their last 15 since Durant returned from his calf injury — the three losses all on the road by a combined 10 points to top Eastern teams. Friday’s loss is different, though. The Bulls have been scuffling, and it happened in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder hadn’t lost since Nov. 4 with Durant playing.

For reasons that are hard to explain, the Thunder are 14-2 against the West, but just 6-8 against the East. Durant says it’s “just coincidence,” and while it might be, those losses are all against the good Eastern teams — the Raptors, Bulls (twice), Hawks, Heat, Celtics, Knicks and Cavs. The coincidence here is that they all happen to be from the East. What’s not happenstance is that the Thunder clearly are having issues with consistently beating good teams.

That’s a little easier to explain. The Thunder have their two stars, and have an impressive level they can reach any given night. But the supporting cast is precariously unpredictable, and a tangible identity seems to come and go. This has been the theme for this Thunder season. They’re pretty good — 20-10, still 12-4 since Durant came back in late November, still third in the West — but nowhere close to the standard they want to be, or really, have to get to if they want to compete with the two teams in front of them.

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