Highlights: Bulls fall to short-handed Spurs
For once, the shoe was on the other foot, as the Bulls (30-21) felt the wrath of a team missing some of its most important pieces Monday night.
San Antonio (41-12) came into the United Center and showed why their system, not individual players, have made them what Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau called the NBA’s “gold standard” over the past few decades, by soundly defeating the hosts, 103-89.
Even without their top three players—Manu Ginobili and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan were already unlikely to play, but San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich’s pregame admission that All-Star point guard Tony Parker has a right-knee injury, suffered during Sunday’s win in Brooklyn, came as a surprise—the Spurs were effective in the early going, maintaining a slight edge behind the play of sharpshooting wing Danny Green (18 points, six rebounds) and athletic second-year small forward Kawhi Leonard (26 points).
For the Bulls, veterans Rip Hamilton (16 points) and Carlos Boozer (14 points, eight rebounds) led the charge offensively, with Joakim Noah (15 rebounds, five assists)—the All-Star center was a game-time decision to plantar fasciitis in his right foot—being his usual presence on the glass.
The game was a tight-knit affair throughout the opening period, as the visitors, despite lacking star power, played to the strengths of their system, while the hosts got a boost off the bench from backup big man Taj Gibson.
Although the Spurs received a similar lift from reserve DeJuan Blair, at the conclusion of the first quarter, the hosts held a 24-20 advantage.
The Bulls utilized backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli at point guard to open the second quarter and the reserve scorer showed no ill effects from his gimpy right ankle, throwing down a fast-break dunk and then knocking down a triple after starter Nate Robinson (20 points, seven assists) was reinserted into the contest.
Leonard and backup guard Gary Neal (16 points)—the latter, known for his long-range marksmanship, lived up to his reputation upon checking into the game—were the catalysts for San Antonio, which remained in close contact.
The guests eventually overtook their hosts, as the visitors executed to perfection on offense, buckled down defensively and with the aforementioned duo, as well as rookie point guard Nando De Colo (seven assists)—the product of France started in place of Parker—leading the way, the Spurs built a double-digit lead.
At into the intermission, the Bulls, who struggled with ball-security issues throughout the first half, trailed the team with the NBA’s best record, 51-42, which was actually a sign of improvement, as their biggest deficit was 12 points.
After the break, San Antonio continued its onslaught, as the visitors’ lead ballooned to a comfortable margin, as Green, Leonard and power forward Boris Diaw were keys to the Spurs’ dominance.
The hosts, who did get offensive contributions from Noah on the boards and Luol Deng (11 points, 11 rebounds)—the repeat All-Star, after enduring a miserable first half, showed his frustration and whistled for a rare technical foul—and the efficient Hamilton contributed as scorers.
In an adjustment meant to spark a comeback, the Bulls extended their defensive pressure in an effort to push the tempo and get back into the game, and it worked, as Robinson’s playmaking and instant-offense scoring helped them narrow the gap.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls remained behind, but by the much more manageable score of 76-71, partially due to Robinson’s offensive explosion to close the third period.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, the hosts went on a 5-0 run to make it a one-point affair, rousing the anxious crowd—the Bulls loyalists were none too pleased with the officiating—and turning what looked like a methodical bludgeoning of the home team into a competitive game.
But the Spurs quickly regained their composure, as the likes of Leonard, Neal and center Tiago Splitter (16 points), despite getting demolished on the boards, stayed the course and again gradually built a double-digit lead.
While the Bulls valiantly tried to make a push and play catch-up, they simply couldn’t get over the hump, as turnovers on one end and defensive lapses on the other doomed them as the game entered its stretch run.
By the end, even the hard-nosed Thibodeau waved the white flag—deep reserves such as Daequan Cook and rookie point guard Marquis Teague saw some action in the waning moments—when it became clear that San Antonio, led by a bright young star in Leonard, wasn’t prepared to relent control of the contest late.