Bulls blow 26-point lead, fall to Thunder

VP of basketball operations John Paxson and coach Jim Boylen have been beating the toughness drum, so how did the players respond on Monday? By blowing a 26-point lead and dropping the first game of a four-game road trip.

SHARE Bulls blow 26-point lead, fall to Thunder
The Bulls’ Thaddeus Young passes the ball around Oklahoma City Thunder forward Abdel Nader on Monday night.

The Bulls’ Thaddeus Young passes the ball around Oklahoma City Thunder forward Abdel Nader on Monday night.

Kyle Phillips/AP

OKLAHOMA CITY — On Monday, Bulls coach Jim Boylen made the distinction between a lack of toughness and being soft.

“I don’t believe in the word soft because I don’t think we have those kinds of guys,’’ Boylen said. “I just think it’s a learning thing, how to play physical in this league, how to defend without fouling and be physical, how to play offensive basketball where you absorb contact and embrace pressure. Those are just growth plates for our team.

“[Clippers coach] Doc Rivers said to me — we talked before the game [Saturday] — ‘Hey, you guys are playing hard; you’re just young.’ And I think some of that is newness, youngness and just learning how to play at this level. This is the top level. So we’ll keep coaching it and teaching it and showing it, and we’ll grow with it.’’

Obviously, there’s still lots of growing to do.

After playing some of their best basketball of the season in the first quarter against the Thunder, the Bulls watched a 26-point lead evaporate by the middle of the fourth, and they had no one to blame but themselves in the 109-106 loss.

Too many turnovers in the second half (11), too many bad shots, too little in the aforementioned toughness department.

After Chris Paul made a three-pointer with 2:38 left, the Thunder (12-14) were up by four and had outscored the Bulls 22-10 at that point in the fourth quarter.

“One of the struggles that we’ve had is that when physicality presents itself to them in a game, they don’t always respond,’’ vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said Saturday. “That’s just a truth, and that has cost us in a lot of games.

“It’s very easy to point a finger at Coach or something like that, and I’m not going to convince anyone of anything else, and I’m never going to try.’’

With the Thunder up by two with 1:16 left, Paul made two free throws to increase the lead to four. Zach LaVine, who had 39 points, responded with two free throws, and after a missed three, the Bulls had a chance to tie or take the lead. LaVine tied the game on a layup with 25.9 seconds left.

After a scrum gave Oklahoma City the ball out of bounds with 4.3 seconds left, Wendell Carter Jr. was called for a foul on Steven Adams on the inbound.

The big man banked the first free throw in — yes, banked it in — then missed the second one. The problem was Thunder guard Dennis Schroder tipped the ball back out, forcing the Bulls to foul Paul with 1.3 seconds left. He made both free throws, and after LaVine missed a prayer at the horn, the Bulls (10-19) were handed a crushing defeat in the first game of a four-game road trip.

A major failure in the toughness department.

“Chris Paul made some big-time plays,’’ Bulls guard Kris Dunn said. “That’s him being a vet. You’ve got to take the positives out of there. The biggest thing we’ve got to harp on is finishing games.’’

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