SAN ANTONIO—It was the type of performance that unfortunately typified the Bulls’ struggles this season—not enough to win.
The opposite of Tom Thibodeau’s famous mantra came into play Wednesday night at the AT&T Center, as the short-handed Bulls (34-27), after digging themselves out of an early hole, building their own commanding lead and then keeping their hosts at bay, ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, getting blitzed by a dominant San Antonio (48-14) team in the game’s final frame and losing, 101-83.
Starting out in a 8-0 hole after last month’s home loss to San Antonio—sans the “Big Three” of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as veteran Stephen Jackson—certainly wasn’t what Thibodeau envisioned to begin the contest, but even with Parker, an MVP candidate, out of the lineup, that’s what occurred.
Future Hall of Famer Duncan (18 points, 10 rebounds) went to work in the early going, as did second-year standout Kawhi Leonard (14 points)—reprising his role from the February matchup, in which the athletic youngster carried the Spurs’ offensive load—and while the Bulls eventually got on the board, they played from behind, as the hosts built a solid cushion.
But a combination of strong defense and transition offense—six of the visitors’ first 14 points were scored on fast breaks—allowed the Bulls to battle back to take their first lead of the night, courtesy of a 15-1 run, buoyed by the scoring of Marco Belinelli (21 points, seven assists) and Luol Deng (19 points, seven rebounds), Joakim Noah’s (eight points, 13 rebounds) rebounding and the playmaking of Nate Robinson, whose layup with his hand behind his head was reminiscent of Karl Malone.
Behind the play of sixth-man extraordinaire Ginobili (18 points, nine assists), San Antonio recovered as the opening period went on, but after a quarter of play, the Bulls held a 23-22 advantage.
Rookie Marquis Teague (11 points) started the second quarter—along with the All-Star duo of Noah and Deng, and backup wings Daequan Cook and Jimmy Butler—and hit his first career NBA three-pointer early in the frame to help the Bulls maintain their slim winning margin, but Deng continued to be the team’s offensive focal point.
However, the Spurs remained within close contact and with contributions from the likes of veteran backup Stephen Jackson, the hosts kept the pressure on their short-handed guests, though the return of Belinelli quickly turned things around, keeping the Bulls in front.
Teague continued to be a significant contributor, knocking down two more triples, while Butler also made an impact and Carlos Boozer’s (10 points, eight rebounds) presence also had to be accounted for, all resulting in the visitors building a double-digit lead.
But after trailing by as many as 14 points, the Spurs, buoyed by the athletic Leonard, stormed back with an 11-0 spurt to make it a single-possession game late in the first half, though the Bulls held them off enough to go into the intermission with a 52-47 lead.
After the break, the action slowed and the game’s pace was less frantic, but it was no less intense, as both teams tried to assert their will on the defensive end, though Belinelli—who again functioned as the team’s primary ballhandler, but was also the Bulls’ go-to scorer—and Boozer got into rhythm for the visitors, who maintained their edge.
Noah, engaged in a intriguing head-to-head battle with Duncan—the pair of big man exchanged words early in the third quarter and had to be separated by referee Ron Garretson, as well as Boozer—was in the midst of a huge rebounding night, as usual, but the Spurs crept closer behind the play of swingman Danny Green, who made an impact offensively after a scoreless first half.
Veteran forward Boris Diaw, who didn’t play at all in the first half, was the next player to spark San Antonio, which took control of the contest and overtook their guests by utilizing a deep bench.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls trailed, 72-68, with the Spurs owning all of the momentum.
An 8-0 Spurs run to start the fourth quarter put the Bulls in a double-digit hole, something they struggled to recover from, as the likes of center Tiago Splitter (13 points, 10 rebounds) and backup point guard Patty Mills (13 points) made timely shots to keep the Spurs’ foot on the visitors’ necks.
While the Bulls continued to take care of the basketball, their already-shaky shooting became more of an issue, the hosts won the battle of the boards and on the defensive end of the floor, San Antonio executed to precision, using solid ball movement and good spacing to get open looks, then converting them.
As the game headed into its stretch run, the Bulls couldn’t get over the hump and stop the home team’s onslaught, which featured a variety of players continuing to make plays whenever necessary,
In the end, “Los Bulls” were overwhelmed by “Los Spurs” on the NBA’s “Noche Latina,” and after losing to the Western Conference’s top team, lost ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race with the postseason approaching.