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Bulls come up short in 97-91 loss to Thunder

Bulls forward Carlos Boozer tries drive past Thunder forward Nick Collissecond quarter Chicago Bulls-OklahomCity Thunder NBA game Thursday November 8

Bulls forward Carlos Boozer tries to drive past Thunder forward Nick Collison in the second quarter of the Chicago Bulls-Oklahoma City Thunder NBA game Thursday November 8, 2012 at the United Center in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:37AM

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau spent the 48 hours leading up to the showdown with the defending Western Conference champion talking about it like it was just another game of checkers.

Very ho-hum with a lot of standard Thibodeau clichés such as, “building good habits,’’ and “playing to our strengths, covering up our weaknesses.’’

Just playing checkers.

Yeah, right. This was a game of chess for Thibodeau, and for 47 minutes, he moved the pieces around like a master.

Having his defenders go under the pick-and-roll to induce streaky shooter Russell Westbrook to settle for long-distance shots, using Jimmy Butler to counter Kevin Martin’s offense and even throwing 5-9 Nate Robinson on 6-9 Kevin Durant at the end of the third quarter just to give the Thunder ‘‘a different look.’’

But it was all for naught in the Bulls’ 97-91 loss Thursday at the United Center.

When there’s no Derrick Rose on the board to move around, there are only so many pieces to be played.

The loss was yet another reminder of how important Rose is to the Bulls, especially against a team with All-Stars such as Durant and Westbrook.

“We’re definitely capable [without Rose],’’ Joakim Noah said. “Everyone that saw the game can see that we’re capable.’’

At the same time, Noah wasn’t looking at the loss as a moral victory.

“It’s all about W’s and L’s,’’ Noah said. “We got a loss. We have to learn from it. We always felt like we could play against anybody.

‘‘It’s just frustrating because you do two or three things differently, and you win the game. When you lose by such few possessions, it’s tough.’’

With the game tied at 87 with just over two minutes left, Westbrook made a driving layup to put the Thunder (3-2) ahead. Durant made it a four-point lead with a jumper, and after Taj Gibson cut it to two with a 20-footer, Durant made the shot of the night, a fadeaway from 17 feet off one leg.

“You can’t make excuses,’’ Gibson said.

“The easiest thing to do is make excuses without Derrick. But we just have to keep on running until he gets back.’’

As much as Thibodeau has tried to avoid Rose talk, there are some games, some moments, when it can’t be avoided.

Thibodeau knew that the Bulls (3-2) would have their hands full against the Thunder.

“You have to make decisions that you feel will give you your best shot at winning,’’ Thibodeau said. “So it’s challenging because of their greatness.

‘‘When you have guys like Westbrook, Durant and [Serge] Ibaka, and you bring in a guy like Martin off the bench, that puts enormous pressure on you.’’

That trio of starters combined for 61 points. Durant led Oklahoma City with 24, and Martin added 15 off the bench.

Luol Deng led the Bulls with 27 points, and Richard Hamilton had 20.

“We were right there,’’ Hamilton said. “We really felt like we let one slip away.’’

Durant eventually iced the game with two free throws.

It was a star being a star.

And a piece Thibodeau doesn’t have around to play with.

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