CHICAGO -- In the midst of a hard-fought run to the end of the regular season, the Chicago Bulls caught another reminder Monday night of exactly what they miss the most. As Kevin Durant rained down jumpers and free throws while leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory, Tom Thibodeau and his team were left to wonder once again what could have been if Derrick Rose had been able to stay healthy. For all the grit and determination the Bulls continue to show, there is no amount of heart and hustle that can overcome the talent of a player such as Durant. There is no amount of defense to slow down a player of his caliber.
"KD, he played great," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after Durant's 35-point, 12-rebound, five-assist performance. "He's a great player. You try to put two on the ball -- it opened up the rebounding and everything else for everybody. It opened up everything for everybody else. He demands a lot of attention. And you got to give credit when credit is due. He's the best player in the world right now."
On top of the fact that Durant appears to be headed to an MVP award this season, it's the attention-grabbing portion of Durant's game that hurt the Bulls the most. Durant's ability to create offensively clears space on the floor for the rest of his teammates. Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is a superstar in his own right. He almost ripped off a triple-double by playing off Durant. The Thunder's defense was solid down the stretch, but it was their offense that the Bulls had no answer for. The Bulls got open looks in the final 10 minutes, but they managed to score just 10 points during that time and shot just 7-for-21 in the fourth quarter.
"It was just one of those games that you want to take back," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "I felt like we were right there. We had a lot of clean 3s, normal 3s that we hit in the fourth. We look forward to the fourth, and it just didn't go our way."
That's the problem for the Bulls and why this particular game has to be so tough to take. They know how to knock off any team in the league on any given night -- as evidenced by the fact that they beat the Miami Heat and crushed the Houston Rockets last week. But it was the way this game played out that they have seen too many times before. With 10 minutes left to play, the Bulls cut Oklahoma City's lead to one point. From that point forward, they stalled -- on both ends of the floor. They didn't have that one particular player to turn to when times got rough.
Durant and LeBron James are in a class by themselves because of their abilities. The issue for the Bulls is that they don't have anyone who has that kind of talent offensively. They must execute perfectly against elite teams in order to win. To that point, they turned the ball over just six times Monday. They outscored the Thunder by two points in the paint and 11 points in the second-chance category, tied them in rebounds, and dished out one more assist.
The Bulls did not shoot well, though. They were just 34.5 percent from the field and 22.7 percent (5-for-22) from beyond the arc. When a team can't make shots against a high-level opponent, it can't win playoff series. And this Bulls team, no matter how hard it tries, will never be able to knock off a team such as the Thunder or the Heat in a seven-game series without the offensive genius of Rose -- a genius whose ability is in question after back-to-back season-ending knee surgeries.
"When you play a guy like [Durant], it's not on one person," Noah said. "It's on everybody. Overall, when you get him shooting those one-leg shots and he's hitting, you've got to give credit, but I feel like we had a few mental mistakes today that could have cost us the game. We didn't hit shots, but overall you've got to give credit when credit is due; he's a great player."
Noah is a great player -- but he's not like Durant. Nobody is, aside from James.
The Bulls didn't want to buy in to the notion that the Thunder had just too much star power down the stretch. After all, they did beat the Heat and Rockets last week, and they've beaten the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on the road in the past month and a half. They know what it takes to win games against the best.
"You could argue that about the Heat," Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy said, discussing the superstar challenges the Thunder pose for an opponent. "A week ago we finished strong down the stretch and overtime. Every game's different, so I wouldn't read too much into that."
The book always ends the same way for the Bulls, though. Or at least it has over the past four years. They've proved they can win games anywhere -- against anybody -- in the regular season. They have not proved they can do that in the playoffs. Until they do, a loss such as Monday's to a team such as the Thunder and to a star such as Durant will always be more enduring than a regular-season victory that holds no weight in the playoffs.