Jim Boylen paused and smiled, imagining what his home debut as Bulls coach would be like Friday night. He figured he would step onto the court and wave to his wife and two daughters in the first row of the United Center.
Mostly, he said, it would feel like a dream. His emotions had been swirling since Monday, when the Bulls named him as Fred Hoiberg’s replacement.
“It’s just a surreal thing,” said Boylen, a 20-year NBA assistant who wore a black suit coat and red tie. “I never thought my whole life I’d be the coach of the Chicago Bulls. I wanted to be a head coach in the league. But of the Chicago Bulls? It’s unbelievable.”
Boylen spent the better part of his first week on the job attempting to put his stamp on the team, to build from the ground up, as he put it.
It showed for much of the night in the Bulls’ 114-112 victory over the Thunder that snapped a seven-game losing streak.
The same competitiveness the Bulls showed in his debut Tuesday in a road loss to the Pacers was evident again after two days of relentless practices.
“Our will needs to be better,” Boylen said before the game Friday. “Our will comes and goes during a game. If you’re mentally tougher and in better shape, your will lasts longer.”
The Bulls made it a thrilling night, getting some clutch shots. Zach Lavine’s 3-pointer with 5½ minutes to play gave them a 103-100 lead.
A Russell Westbrook 3-pointer tied the score at 107 with less than two minutes left, but LaVine — who finished with 25 points — answered with a jumper on the next possession.
Lauri Markkanen, who scored 24 points in his first home game of the season, fed Justin Holiday for a 3-pointer with 22.7 seconds left for a 112-110 lead. After Westbrook tied the score with a layup, Markkanen answered, driving past Paul George and scoring over the outstretched hand of Steven Adams with 4.9 seconds remaining.
George’s potential winning 3-point attempt missed, and LaVine chased down the rebound to seal the victory.
Boylen had been preaching ultimate team effort and accountability and this week held longer practices with more conditioning drills.
“I’m direct and honest,” he said. “They’re going to know exactly where they stand at every moment of the day. I’ve operated that way since I’ve been here. Nobody likes to be told the truth when it’s not good for them.”
The truth about the Bulls? Boylen was honest about that, too, pregame.
“When you’re coachable and teachable, you become reliable,” Boylen said. “We’re not there yet. All those things come under ownership of the team, what’s best for the team. That’s what I want.”
Center Robin Lopez played more extended minutes in an effort to combat Adams, who scored 21 points, including the Thunder’s first 12. After not playing Tuesday against the Pacers, Lopez scored 11 points in 23 minutes against the Thunder.
Holiday’s 20 points were his most since a season-high 27 in Miami on Nov. 27.
Westbrook, who missed his first four shots and had only nine points at halftime, recorded the 109th triple-double of his career a game after surpassing Jason Kidd for third place on the all-time list. He finished with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists. He also had 10 turnovers.
Boylen was as energetic and loud in his home debut as he was Tuesday. When Markkanen hit a 3-pointer and drew a foul from Westbrook, Boylen walked along the sideline staring down at the court and excitedly pumped his fist. When the Bulls ended the half with a turnover Westbrook converted into an easy layup, followed by a missed 3 attempt at the buzzer from Markkanen, Boylen angrily shook his fist.
It has been an emotional first week for Boylen, who said replacing his friend Hoiberg was difficult. The former coach sent Boylen a text message wishing him luck before Tuesday’s game.
“It’s awful,” Boylen said. “It’s gut-wrenching for him. It’s gut-wrenching for me. This thing, it’s raw and it’s tough and it’s hard. We’re different people. We have different styles. It’s not one bad and one good. It’s just different.”