There wasn't much fanfare when the Chicago Bulls signed E'Twaun Moore to a partially guaranteed two-year contract back in September. During his three-year NBA career, the 25-year-old Purdue product hasn't exactly been a major headline producer; his stints with the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic were more agate-alike, really. But despite Chicago already boasting a backcourt filled with more decorated names — Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks — Moore looked at the Bulls and saw opportunity.
"I knew I was coming to a great team, and I knew we had a deep team," Moore told returning champion Craig Sager. "I just wanted to come in and try to contribute any way I could — defense, offense, you know. Just be ready to play."
I think it's safe to say that Moore was ready on Thursday. I'm not sure, however, that the Oklahoma City Thunder were ready for him.
Pressed into duty after injuries to Rose and Butler, Moore not only found himself on the court in the closing stages of Chicago's nationally televised meeting with the Oklahoma City Thunder and their rampaging MVP candidate, Russell Westbrook. He found himself taking, and making, the biggest shot of the night.
With the Thunder holding onto a 105-104 lead and just 4.9 seconds remaining in a pretty fantastic contest, Chicago forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. prepared the inbounds pass. Westbrook trailed Moore as the Bull broke to the near corner, but cheated away to shade toward big man Pau Gasol, who had already put 21 points and 12 boards on Oklahoma City and had good post position on Thunder defensive ace Serge Ibaka.
Dunleavy lofted the pass to Gasol, but Westbrook didn't leap into the air for the sort of soaring interception he'd pulled off earlier in the frame; instead, he just turned to face Gasol, his hands down at his sides. The 7-foot Spaniard saw Moore uncovered and made a perfect one-touch pass to the corner, where Moore collected, fired and splashed through a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining, giving Chicago a 107-105 lead and sending the United Center — including a certain red-furred denizen — into hysterics.
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After a timeout, Oklahoma City did have a chance to respond. This time, though, Westbrook couldn't pull another miracle out of his
hat mask. Pressured along the sideline by Moore and Bulls center Joakim Noah, Westbrook stepped out of bounds:
... which led the normally stoic and reserved Noah to explode, and an equally excited courtside fan to, um, spank the reigning Defensive Player of the Year:
Westbrook fouled Nikola Mirotic on the ensuing inbounds pass. The rookie made his first free throw before missing his second, draining away the final tenths of a second on the clock and sealing an impressive 108-105 Chicago win.
Moore played active, aggressive, frenetic defense throughout, and finished with a career-high 19 points on 9-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds, two steals and a block in 22 minutes off the bench. He scored 13 of those points on a perfect 6-for-6 mark in the fourth quarter — he combined with Mirotic (14 of his Bulls-high 26 in the frame) to outscore Oklahoma City 27-26 over the final 12 minutes — with none bigger, of course, than those last three.
"Coach [Tom Thibodeau] drew up a good play," Moore told Sager. "It was for Pau to go inside, but he read it and, you know, just finished off the game."
And, in so doing, finished off Westbrook's run of four consecutive triple doubles.
It wasn't exactly an off night for the Thunder superstar, who scored 43 points (making him the first player in Thunder franchise history to go for 40 or more in three straight games) while grabbing eight rebounds, dishing seven assists and snagging two steals in 38 minutes. He teamed with Ibaka (25 points, 12-for-19 shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks) to carry a Thunder side that was playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road and is still missing injured reigning MVP Kevin Durant and starting center Steven Adams.
He made sweet feeds, like this early alley-oop to Andre Roberson:
... and carved his way through the heart of the Bulls defense:
... and made some tough jumpers in big moments:
But after Westbrook exploded for 19 points in the third quarter to stake Oklahoma City to a 79-72 lead heading into the fourth, the Bulls were able to slow him down just enough in the last stanza — seven points on 2-for-9 shooting — to give themselves a chance to complete the comeback in a game they once trailed by 16 points.
"Just trying to make him shoot tough shots," Moore said in describing Chicago's approach to defending Westbrook. "He's a great player. He was on a streak for the triple-double — I know he wanted it tonight. But you know, we needed the victory."
It wouldn't have gotten him the triple-double, but you couldn't help but wonder in the moment if Westbrook might wind up kicking himself for passing up this opportunity to feed Ibaka, who'd been draining deep jumpers all night, on the second-to-last Thunder possession, with Oklahoma City up by one:
This was the play with Westbrook not trusting. Had Ibaka wide open in the pick-and-pop: pic.twitter.com/JgdNMwq9UV
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 6, 2015
Instead, Westbrook pulled the ball back out, went one-on-one against Mirotic on the cross-match, and wound up air-balling a 22-footer. Thunder trade-deadline acquisition Enes Kanter caught the ball under the basket and attempted to put it in, but since Westbrook's shot never touched the rim, the shot clock never reset, forcing a 24-second violation and giving Chicago the ball back, setting the stage for Moore's heroics.
After the game, Westbrook copped to the error and expressed regret:
Russ: "My job is not to come out & try to play for triple-doubles. My job is to come out & try to do whatever it takes to help us win games"
— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 6, 2015
Westbrook on his final shot: "I should have passed it to Serge. That was a bad decision on my part. He was wide open."
— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 6, 2015
Dunleavy scored 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting, including a 3-for-6 mark from downtown, in 37 1/2 minutes. While he scored just four points, the resurgent Noah grabbed 12 rebounds (putting him over 5,000 in his career) and dished nine assists without a turnover in 31 minutes for the Bulls, who improved to 39-23 and moved into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
D.J. Augustin (10 points, all in the fourth quarter) was the only non-Westbrook-or-Ibaka member of the Thunder to crack double figures. Oklahoma City now sits at 34-27, only a half-game up on the New Orleans Pelicans — who just got Anthony Davis back, and he looked gooooood — for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
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