Bulls surrender 23-point lead in tough loss to Spurs

The Bulls let a 23-point lead slip away as the Spurs rallied with a huge fourth quarter to defeat Chicago 106-99. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting. The Spurs scored 17 straight points at one point in the fourth quarter. The Bulls (18-21) will look to bounce back as they next travel to Denver to take on the Nuggets. (24-16).

How the heck did that happen?

Not so much the 23-point Bulls lead that ended up a 106-99 San Antonio Spurs victory. The Bulls have lost big leads before, Portland, Oklahoma City and Phoenix to name just a few. But perhaps not when they were playing as well as they did through most of the first three quarters, clever, sharp, efficient, unselfish, accurate and confident.

"It just sucks that we were in that position when we were playing such a good game and then we let it all go to waste," said Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 29 points, six rebounds, six assists and was best for plus/minus. "I thought today was a great opportunity. We were playing really good. Could've been our third in a row."

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 29 points in the tough loss to San Antonio.

I was so sure I wrote it down in my notes late in the third quarter with the Bulls still leading by 18 points. Not so much because of the lead, but because they seemed so certain, so self assured. But to paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when I think I'm all in, they do something again to force me back out.

The Bulls record dropped to 18-21 and 2-3 on this home stand as the Bulls head for Denver Friday and then the following week a run of eight road games in nine. They looked oh so close to that elusive momentum and third three-game winning streak of the season. There have been no fours.

"We have to do a better job of playing with the lead," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan.

Yes, we've heard that one before. It seems the Bulls are not quite past that one, yet. They're also not quite past their frailty against defensive pressure, which the Spurs amped up after Gregg Popovich likely yelled at them a lot at halftime. No one was saying it, but the Bulls absolutely dominated the Spurs, 31-17 after the first quarter and 58-40 at halftime even after the Bulls eased off their throats and let the Spurs score the last five points of the first half.

Still, it didn't appear as if this Spurs team without its two best players—LaMarcus Aldridge attempting to be traded and DeMar DeRozan on personal leave—would be capable of recovering with another of those groups of hopeful kids.

Though perhaps the Bulls should have seen at least one familiar warning sign after Spurs who's-that-guy center Jakob Poeltl was more than halfway to his career high scoring by halftime. He finished equalling a career high in points and setting a career high in rebounds. So much for his career averages of about five points and five rebounds. If that sounds familiar, that's about what Moses Brown brought in Tuesday when the mystery Thunder center set career highs for points and rebounds.

Anyone seeing a pattern?

Thad Young played in his 1000th regular season game, scoring 16 points, grabbing eight boards, and dishing five assists in the loss.

Sure, the new starting lineup with point center Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky looked good again getting the Bulls off to a 20-9 start and 29-13. Young in his milestone 1,000th career game finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Satoransky had a team high seven assists. But opposing centers whether star, role playing or unknown have routinely been putting up career numbers. Donovan started Wendell Carter Jr. the second half against Oklahoma City Tuesday recognizing the disparity.

Young is a wizard with the ball and gets the Bulls offense functioning at its best. But he's also subject to diminishing returns, which Donovan understands, vulnerable to mistakes as his playing time increases. He and Satoransky made crucial turnovers late in the midst of the Spurs' 17-0 fourth quarter run that stole the game, Young finishing with six turnovers. Young played 11 fourth quarter minutes without scoring.

The veteran Bulls bench which had been so effective now is a young bench with Carter, Coby White and a still recovering Otto Porter Jr. Donovan acknowledged the momentum turned in the third quarter with the reserves' sequence of turnovers by Carter, White, Porter and Patrick Williams. So then when the Spurs began the fourth quarter scoring 10 straight points in the first two minutes, suddenly that three quarters of hoop art was getting packed up for the flea market. So Donovan took a chance fearing what he feared.

Coach Donovan took questions after the tough 106-99 loss to San Antonio.

"Once we started subbing, I thought that's when we lost a little bit of that momentum and the start of the fourth quarter they kind of cut it right back down," said Donovan. "It's hard, 10 minutes on the clock, Zach has played a lot of minutes; so have a lot of other guys. It's hard to throw them right back in without any rest because inevitably you are going to pay on the back end."

The young and apparently chastened Spurs cashed the check. Though not before LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, the latter with 10 points, appeared to stanch the bleeding with a LaVine drive and a Markkanen three on a LaVine pass. The Bulls were back ahead 89-81 with 7:25 left in the game.

No, not quite enough of a lead.

"That (Spurs) run started probably right around three minutes or so at the end of the third and then continued for a portion of the fourth," noted Donovan. "Then with maybe seven minutes to go we kind of got up by eight or nine points. But we fouled, we turned the ball over, we had some really poor possessions that allowed them to kind of get back in the game. Some of that was turnovers. I think Thad had one that went off his foot. I think Sato had one where he lost it. You're doing things that are giving momentum back to the other team."

It hurt not having Garrett Temple out with an ankle sprain. But the Bulls weren't complaining with the Spurs' missing stars. But with Porter not back in top condition and Carter and White inconsistent in the new rotations, the Bulls also then fell back on another bad habit. Failing to pay admission even as they were spectators.

"We got caught watching (LaVine) and we became very easy to guard that way," said Donovan. "When you're under extreme pressure like that, can you still stick to who you are? I do think that your habits and things like that get exposed under the most pressurized situations. We can't be a team that can just rely on Zach to carry us home. The team knows that's probably not going to be a great winning formula. We're gonna have to do it with everybody pitching in and contributing and helping and making the game easier for each other."

But Young didn't have much left. He missed a dunk and then dribbled off his foot. Satoransky made a turnover and took a quick shot that missed. Meanwhile, the Spurs were marching to the free throw line, 30 attempts to nine for the Bulls, LaVine the only Bulls starter to shoot free throws.

"I guess San Antonio is the best defensive team in the NBA," LaVine offered sarcastically. "They don't foul a lot. I know I was going to the hole and I drive aggressively. I know Thad drives aggressively. We'll try to continue to go out there. Obviously, San Antonio was pretty perfect tonight."

But not many Bulls really do drive aggressively, especially among the starters.

Markkanen primarily stays outside and shoots. Though Williams had a nice line with 10 points and 14 rebounds, he mostly stands in the corner on offense and gives up his dribble as soon as anyone gets in front of him. Though Young is in the lane, he's often maneuvering the ball around to others.

"We don't get fouled a lot," acknowledged Donovan. "It's been something we've talked about in terms of we have to defend without fouling because we are not a high volume free throw shooting team. We've got to be able to have a little bit more presence at the basket to generate some contact to generate fouls. Just calling it like it is: We didn't play with enough physicality or force as the game really got intensified and got amped up."

With that abrupt 17-0 run, suddenly the Spurs trailing badly the entire game had a 98-89 lead with 2:44 left in the game. The Bulls called timeout to apparently see if anyone had stolen their shorts. LaVine got fouled on a drive—Yes! Foul call!—and made a three. But the Spurs who were four of 26 on threes through three quarters then predictably couldn't miss. After shooting 33 percent through three quarters, the young legs Spurs shot 75 percent, 80 percent on threes and outscored the Bulls 39-19 in the fourth. Young and Satoransky played a combined 19 fourth quarter minutes and were scoreless. LaVine had 10 of the Bulls 19 fourth quarter points.

They are trying to win. No experimenting with kids down the stretch.

Zach LaVine shoots over Spurs guard Patty Mills.

"We've been saying this for a long time: We have to learn how to win games at the end of the game," said LaVine.

It's unfortunate because the Bulls won the start for how much that means. Gone are the slow starts with Young and Satoransky maestros of the offense like Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. Like Lenny, as we called him in New York, the Bulls were flamboyant, energetic and charismatic. The Bulls performance was a balm that's begun to salve the wounds of those early depths of scoring despair. Talk about exaggerating like Bernstein.

Making five of eight threes with nine assists on 12 baskets and 55 percent shooting, the Bulls seemed to be moving out of sight in the first quarter. LaVine stole a pass in the midst of it all, drove full court, cocked his right arm and slammed the ball with such force Popovich's beard almost curled.

When Satoransky hurled a Garrett Crochet heater to LaVine for a score and Williams dropped in another corner three, the Bulls were delivering a 58-35 improvisation with a minute left in the first half. There was no St. Patrick's Day parade Wednesday on the 17th, but the Bulls looked ready to celebrate. The Spurs looked green. Even after a bit of physicality to open the second half. But Young with a slam dunk and Satoransky with a fake and driving score had the Bulls ahead by 20 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter.

Then the Bulls looked like those college kids stumbling out of the taverns.

"We got away from how we got ourselves to a certain point in the game where we're up 20," said Young. "Moving the basketball and trusting the process, trusting all the different reads and the flow and the chemistry. When they double, hit the open guy. We got away from that. We started taking it into our own hands, one on one basketball. Sometimes if the guy gets the ball and he don't see anybody moving, the first thing he does is go one on one because nobody is cutting or flashing to the ball or making the backdoor cut or making the reads or screening for each other. Once we realize we have to trust the process that has gotten us to a certain point in the game, we'll be a better team and more consistent."

It's advice the Bulls shouldn't refuse.