The Eastern Conference is supposedly inferior to its counterpart, but its teams have held the perennial West powerhouse San Antonio Spurs in check over the past week.
In danger of losing five straight for the first time in 11 years, the Spurs look to end their struggles against teams from the East when they conclude their season series with the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.
San Antonio (44-23) has lost four straight for the first time since Nov. 28-Dec. 3, 2003. A loss to the Bulls (27-40) would give the Spurs their longest skid since dropping their last six games in 1996-97, a 20-62 season that helped put them in position to draft Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick.
Each of San Antonio's last three losses have been against teams in the East. Two of those games were against Detroit and league-leading Boston, both of whom have better records than any team in the generally superior West. But the Spurs' other loss during that stretch was against Philadelphia, which is contending for a playoff spot in the East though it wouldn't have much of a chance in the West.
Chicago is in a similar position, remaining in the East's playoff race despite an unimpressive record. The Bulls, though, have won seven of their last 10 at home, averaging 105.2 points in that span, and will be hoping to upset a Spurs team that could be rusty after two off days.
"Two days' rest is nice, but it's not like other teams aren't going through the same things," San Antonio forward Bruce Bowen said. "The difference is they are completing their games. Right now we are not completing, not finishing our games the way we would like."
The Spurs handily beat the Bulls 94-79 on Dec. 26 even though they were missing Manu Ginobili due to a sprained left index finger. On Monday night, San Antonio lost 93-91 to Boston despite getting a 32-point performance from the veteran guard and leading by 22 in the first half.
Ginobili, who leads the Spurs with 20.4 points per game, returned to the reserve role he's had most of the season after starting the majority of San Antonio's games since Jan. 29. Michael Finley took Ginobili's spot in the starting lineup in a possible attempt to shake up a team that has dropped six of seven overall and five straight on the road for the first time since a six-game skid from March 9-April 7, 2005.
At home, meanwhile, is where Chicago has shown its greatest improvement under interim coach Jim Boylan. The Bulls last three wins at the United Center have been against teams jockeying for playoff position, including a 112-96 victory over New Jersey on Tuesday night.
Chicago lost its previous two, giving up late leads in both of those contests. Against the Nets, the Bulls were able to hold on after having a 24-point cushion sliced to nine early in the final period.
"We didn't want that to become a habit," Chicago swingman Luol Deng said of losing late leads. "We were talking to each other that we got to put a stop to it and we can't become known for that."
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