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Bulls without spring in their step fall to Spurs

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By Sam Smith | 3.08.2015 | 5:58 p.m. CT

How’s that saying go this time of year about the Spurs springing ahead and the Bulls falling back?

It was something like that Sunday as the day lasted too long for the Bulls as they trailed the defending champions for all but a few seconds in the first minute of the game and lost 116-105.

The defeat left the Bulls at 39-25, falling barely behind Cleveland for third in the Eastern Conference with a fourth game in five days ahead Monday at home against Marc Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s a difficult stretch for the team, exacerbated by the injuries to Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Rose’s absence was particularly acute Sunday as the Spurs point guards in their layup drill accounted for 47 points on 19 for 28 shooting with a season-high 32 points from Tony Parker, against whom Rose has had success.

“(Parker) is playing great and their team is playing great,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He’s a tough guy to handle when he’s in the paint like that. We tried Tony (Snell) on him. We really didn’t have an answer for him. We have to get a good look at that.”

You’d think they’d seen enough.

Particularly noteworthy—though in a not so notable way—was the Bulls 22 turnovers with the Spurs scoring a season-most 35 points on fast breaks, a staggering 25 in the first half when the Bulls were fortunate to trail just 57-39. They would get the deficit down to 93-85 with 7:24 left on a Kirk Hinrich three. The Bulls got another defensive stand, but Hinrich missed and the Spurs countered with a three from Patty Mills, a turnover by Nikola Mirotic that led to a Manu Ginobili three and then a turnover by Joakim Noah that led to a Parker three. Within about a minute and a half the Bulls were trailing by 17 points and contemplating what may be when everyone returns.

“That’s the plan (holding on for the reinforcements),” said Noah with 11 rebounds, nine assists, four points and five turnovers. “But the games they’ll keep coming. Right now, it’s about fighting for something. We’re fighting for a high seed. All the games we’ve played so far we all agree we could play better. Hopefully, those guys come back when it really matters. It’s a long season. But you (need to) find a way to get yourself going, even at 11 o'clock in the morning.”

It was effectively an early bird start with the Daylight Savings time change with a so called “walk through” practice of the opponent plays back at the team hotel several hours earlier, which is the typical game day routine on the road. Fortunately, there’s not all that much to do in San Antonio since the Alamo tours stop at 7 p.m.

Pau Gasol was liberated, as usual, with 23 points and 15 rebounds and Aaron Brooks twisted his way around the Spurs big guys for 22 points. Mirotic added 19 points with nine of nine from the free throw line and Nazr Mohammed, in rare play against the Spurs’ dual center lineup, had his best game of the season with eight points and two rebounds in just over six minutes. But Snell continued to wear down and was scoreless in 29 minutes, shooting four of 18 the last three games and averaging four points. The Bulls did shoot 50.7 percent, losing for the first time this season when shooting more than 50 percent.

“There was no quit,” said Thibodeau. “Initially, I was worried if we would have the ability to score enough and I think we have the answer to that; we can score enough. The big thing is taking care of the ball and making sure we are getting back defensively.”

There are no excuses about starting time or players out, though there is only so much you can do with what you have. Noah’s nine assists were more than double any guard. But Noah remains loath to shoot, enabling the defense to choke the paint. So without much playmaking from the guards with Butler also able to run the offense, the floor play becomes deliberate and uncertain.

On several occasions you could almost see Bulls players unaccustomed to running offense, holding the ball and waiting for cuts and screens to develop while the aggressive Spurs defenders simply stepped up to knock the ball away or deflect passes and turn them into easy baskets.

The Bulls did shoot better. But with the turnovers, the Bulls attempted 17 fewer shots and as is their custom eased into games and quarters with an overreliance on set plays and not enough ball movement. Of course, with some of these groups on the floor without Rose and Butler, too many passes generally end up in the hands of an opponent.

“It is important we concentrate on getting off to better starts to put ourselves in leading position instead of coming from behind, especially against great teams and especially with our situation now,” said Gasol, who almost had a double/double in a first quarter in which the Bulls started trailing 13-4. “So we have to emphasize a good start, get set early on, get our defense going, our offense going, and then you have to take care of the ball. First half, especially, we didn’t get back and give support to our guards defensively in transition. Those things and the turnovers also led to those fast break points. Even though we shot the ball much better today than we did a couple of nights ago, we turned the ball over 22 times. Against a very good team like they are I don’t think there is a way you can win it.”

That’s apparent even with the many things the Bulls did well, including holding Tim Duncan to his first game ever with zero field goals, outrebounding the Spurs, 44-35, leading in points in the paint and second chance points with more assists and free throws. The Bulls played hard enough after their poor starts to every quarter but the third. They simply cannot make that many mistakes; no one can.

“Obviously the turnovers killed us,” said Mike Dunleavy, who had 12 points with just five shots, a number which needs to be higher. “It allowed them to get out in transition, score 35 fast break points, which is absurd. Just from that standpoint our offense seemed good enough to win. We’re playing teams right now that are playing their best basketball of the year. That’s just part of it; It’s a tough stretch. It’s a big one for us (Monday night), and if we can get that one, come out of this 2-2 we’ll be pleased with that. I think we’ve got good spirit, good resiliency, I don’t think that’s questioned. We’ll keep fighting through it; we’ll weather the storm. And I think at the end of the day we’ll end up with our head above water.’’

Gasol was the dominant big man in the game, maneuvering inside for scores, posting up with aggression and scoring while Noah’s defense on Duncan was impressive. But the Bulls still aren’t getting enough good shots for the perimeter guys as with Dunleavy, Snell, Mirotic and Doug McDermott, the Bulls have potentially excellent deep shooting. But they still cannot get the needed squared up looks for those shooters. Which, of course, isn’t easy to do without players like Rose and Butler and even Gibson who can draw a double team inside. And the Spurs are one of the better defensive teams now that they are back healthy. Without Rose, the Bulls are running a lot of side to side action instead of the basketball shorthand north and south, which means going to the basket. As a result, there are more cross court passes, which are not only easier to pick off but leave the defense with no one back to contest. And as good as Noah is with the ball from the high post, if he isn’t a shooting threat defenders are dropping back into the lane, taking away his best passing angles.

It’s a two-pronged recipe for a turnover stew and buffet of opposition layups.

The Spurs were in a feeding frenzy in the second quarter going ahead by 18 points at halftime with Parker leaving footprints on the backs of late arriving Bulls defenders. The Bulls put together a little run on Dunleavy and Brooks threes early in the second half. But Parker revved up his game that has been stalled much of this season and scored 15 consecutive Spurs points—Anyone got that guy?—for a 75-61 Spurs lead. Mohammed, who rarely has played this season, even took an alley-yikes (no oop at his age) pass from Hirnich for a dunk and an offensive rebound score to get the Bulls within 87-77 at the end of three quarters. Talk about your turning back the clock for a guy who was on a Spurs title team a decade ago.

Once again, frustratingly, the Bulls seemed to forget they start keeping score at the beginning of the quarters and gave up six straight points in the first two minutes of the fourth. But Hinrich, the only guard having some defensive success against the Spurs backcourt, made a jumper, Mirotic ran out for a score and three-point play on a long Noah pass and when Hinrich made that three with 7:24 left to get the Bulls within 93-85, it looked like they might steal one. The rodeo had left town, but these Bulls were kicking back.

Then came more mistakes, which was the Bulls specialty Sunday. And now comes Memphis and Gasol squared.

“We kept fighting,” said Pau. “We battled throughout the game trying to give ourselves a chance and put ourselves in a favorable position and we made our runs. But a couple of possessions, a couple of mistakes they make you pay. We expect (Monday) to see two teams step on the floor ready to win the ball game, do whatever it takes. They need to win that game to stay in the position they are and pursuing Golden State and we need to win our game to fight for that second spot in the East. Let’s see where our bodies and energy are at tomorrow. We have to make a mental effort to bring everything we have to give ourselves a chance and win the ball game.”