The Bulls in a 95-91 victory Thursday slayed another giant, the San Antonio Spurs, who were going for an NBA record tying 14th consecutive road win to open the season.
It’s the guys with the sling shots that continue to give them headaches.
“We talked about that after (the game),” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg acknowledged about getting up for the best teams, the Bulls last week defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Also talked about that after the Cleveland game, so that is the scary thing. But if we go out with that type of defensive focus, that type of defensive mentality, we have a chance to win a lot of games. But it has to be consistent and that’s the message for our guys; the effort has to be there on a nightly basis.”
It was Thursday in a curious aberration; the Bulls, according to TNT research, have won their last 16 home games televised on TNT Thursday Night Basketball. In the last seven days, the Bulls have two victories over teams with a combined record of 31-8 when they played the Bulls. In between, they have three losses to teams with a combined record of 25-36 when they played. The win broke a three game losing streak for the Bulls, who are now 12-10. The Bulls host Miami Saturday.
“We obviously have shown we can play with the good teams in this league, home or road,” said Dwyane Wade, who led the Bulls with 20 points. “We still have time to fix that as long as we understand what we need to do. No egos involved (Thursday), playing as hard as possible. Sometimes when you play the lesser teams from the standpoint of name recognition you don’t do the things the same as you would when you play the Cavs and Spurs and Golden State Warriors of the world; if you want to be a good team you have to approach every game the same no matter who you are playing and we have to build to that.”
Rajon Rondo, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals, viewed it more simply.
“Hopefully,” said Rondo, “we get in the playoffs and the (games) are TNT games.”
The Bulls could relax and smile after this one, a game Wade called the best defensive effort of the season, holding the now 18-5 Spurs to 40.2 percent shooting (30.6 percent in the first half), outrebounding San Antonio 50-44, a 16-9 edge in fast breaks and with a staggering margin of 27 free throw attempts to just five for the Spurs.
“It was (defense) awesome,” said Wade. “We know with this team if they get you moving around it’s going to be a rough night. We did a great job of executing our game plan, holding them to low 30s (shooting) the first half. That’s awesome; that’s our best defensive effort so far of the season. We can’t do that every night, but it’s good to see when we stay in front of guys and make them make shots over us we can put in an effort like that. They’ve been making 20 free throws a game; five, that’s very good. You had two defensive teams going at it and we were able to pull it out.”
It was an all around, deep effort from the Bulls for a change, all five starters in double figures scoring and 26 bench points, including nine each from Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio. Doug McDermott added eight points in his first game back after missing 11 with a pair of concussions. He made his first shot, a three, and then three crucial free throws after being fouled with 3:05 left. They gave the Bulls a 91-84 lead after the Spurs had sliced an 18-point third quarter deficit to four with 3:24 left.
But Tony Parker collided with McDermott trying to contest a corner three. Parker then came back with a runner that LaMarcus Aldridge tipped in to make it 91-86 with 2:26 left. Butler, whose streak of 20-point games was stopped at 15 as he played 28 hard minutes chasing Kawhi Leonard, made a pullup 16 footer that spun around the rim three times and went in. He was fouled, but missed the three-point play for a 93-86 Bulls lead with 2:09 left.
“It’s about focus, attention to detail, discipline; and just wanting to do it; it’s not easy,” Wade said of the defensive attention. “Jimmy had the toughest assignment and took the challenge; he did a good job of not letting Kawhi have a big night.”
Taj Gibson, who had 12 points along with Robin Lopez, had his second block of David Lee trying to roll in for a score. The Bulls interior big men were impressive all game, including Felicio with seven rebounds in 18 minutes. Hoiberg had been trying Bobby Portis for more offense with outside shooting. But Felicio was a big part of the win as he’s the best center in playing the pick and roll by doubling and hedging and being able to get back. He’s likely earned his place back in the rotation.
But it was Gibson, as usual, quietly making big defensive plays that go unnoticed. Several times he rooted out Aldridge or Lee, forcing them farther outside for tougher shots. It’s the kind of play that isn’t measurable, but which defines the sort of defense that enabled the Bulls to thwart not only one of the league’s hottest team with 13 wins in their last 14, but a Spurs team fifth in overall shooting and second in three-point percentage. The Spurs were nine of 28 on threes for 32 percent, among their season lows.
“We talked about getting into them a little more,” said Wade. “We felt in the Detroit game they got a few buckets early because we didn’t dive into what we needed to do in our game plan; we executed our game plan. Just staying in front, not going for shot fakes, not letting them get too many angles on us. It’s different when guys have to make shots with you right in front of them; our big guys did a good job on Aldridge and (Pau) Gasol and those guys.”
With just under two minutes left, Danny Green missed a corner three after the Gibson block. But Leonard with 24 points came flying in for the followup dunk, cutting the Bulls lead to 93-88 with 1:56 remaining.
Wade then carried the ball out of the backcourt, got a screen from Rondo and missed a 10 footer. But it was Gibson again with the subtle specialty. Trying to post Lee, Gibson played up physically, and Lee was unable to get the Leonard pass, which went out of bounds for a turnover. No credit to Gibson, but he made the play.
Wade dribbled up again as point guard, drove and was blocked, got his own rebound and got the ball out. It went to Butler, who missed a 12 footer from the right wing. But the ball bounced out into the lane, where Butler picked it up and threw back on top to Rondo with 1:02 left. Wade took a back door bounce pass from Gibson and was fouled on an eight footer, making one of two for a 94-88 Bulls lead with 47.4 seconds left.
It was the Bulls again owning the possession when Wade missed the second. Lopez muscled inside Aldridge and Lee, the latter mostly playing down the stretch for Gasol, and tipped the ball to Butler. He passed back outside and the Bulls ran down the clock, Butler missing with 28.6 seconds left.
Patty Mills missed a three in the last Spurs attempt and the ball bounced out of bounds to the Bulls with 19.2 seconds left.
“Good to have our (added) roster,” said Butler. “We are waiting for MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) to get back. Then we’ll be at full strength, which is where we want to be.”
That return was McDermott, who made those big late free throws, but more importantly provided depth to the bench and the spacing with the team’s best three-point shooter. That also took pressure off Mirotic, who was four of eight for the nine points with six rebounds. It was a better bench performance, a 27-26 deficit.
“We (reserves) take pride in coming in and sustaining a lead, if not growing the lead,” said McDermott. “That was something our bench was not doing the last couple of weeks. The guys take it personal. We want to help out these guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us out to these leads; we take it personal when teams come back at us. Tonight we did a good job of getting it and sustaining it.
“Our coaching staff today kind of called out our bench,” said McDermott. “Said, ‘We have to have you tonight, bench.’ And I think we took that to heart and we were all really locked in. I felt great, everything; a little rusty with my rhythm, but didn’t feel any problems, symptom wise. It’s one of those deals I’m just going to put it behind me. I feel like I’m not going to hold back if I’m going to the rim or anything like that.”
The Bulls didn’t hold back the effort in this game in which the Spurs never led.
The Bulls went out to a 19-12 lead and 21-17 after one quarter going to Lopez against Gasol, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Gibson, who scored six of the Bulls first 10 points. The Bulls cranked up their advantage to 45-32 at halftime with Rondo’s pace, a full court pass to Wade for a dunk, and Felicio’s defense that was crucial in an 11-4 run to start the second quarter. Felicio also had a tip in of a Wade miss and slam dunk on a nifty Mirotic inside pass. Early in the fourth quarter, Felicio would have a booming followup dunk of a McDermott missed three.
“Doug played well,” said Rondo. “But the big fella, Cris, he was excellent tonight. He came in and gave us a big burst of energy off the bench.”
It’s been tough for Felicio, who had eight DNPs in the last month, three other games playing four minutes or fewer and a game in the D-league with the Windy City Bulls. But he has stayed sharp, Butler testifying that he does 1,000-pound squats in practice. Well, that’s what he said.
“The beginning of the year I was playing and that was good,” said Felicio. “Then I had a couple of bad games and then that was frustrating for me a little bit. I kept working and I knew my chance would come again. I’m just trying to stay ready and take advantage of every chance I get. I am just trying to do what is best for the team. I know I am not going to score a lot, so I am just trying to play defense, get the put backs I can and play the game to get the guys in good position on pick and roll and those things.”
The Bulls looked like they’d pull away with a 65-47 lead late in the third quarter as Butler, who was four of 14, scored his first field goal midway through the third quarter. The Bulls led 72-63 after three, but this is a tough, veteran Spurs team with a star in Leonard. Leonard had a pair of dazzling three-point plays to get the Spurs within 80-74 with 7:36 left. But then Rondo drove and pulled up for a 20 footer. Rondo then knocked the ball away from Parker on a drive. Mirotic picked it up and handed back to Rondo, who fired half court to a driving Butler for a score. And then it was Gibson with a slam dunk score and a pair of free throws before McDermott’s three to assure the hard earned victory.
“We know we can play with the best and lose to the worst,” said Rondo. “Just finding consistency, finding the right focus, mindset. We have to continue to pick it up.”