Slow start costs Bulls on Christmas day in San Antonio

Well, for the last 40 minutes, the Bulls won by one point. The Bulls in the third quarter took a three-point lead, which represented a 23-point turnaround. Nobody got run over by a reindeer. There were positives Sunday even as the Bulls lost for the fifth time in the last six games, this time 119-100 to the San Antonio Spurs.

The Bulls played themselves back into a game in which it seemed they had no chance; they got another spirited performance from the reserves. And they should get guard Michael Carter-Williams back from injury Monday against the Indiana Pacers. But it wasn’t enough feel good on Christmas Day for everyone to leave San Antonio smiling.

The Spurs’ 28-8 start, even with the Bulls taking a 70-67 third quarter lead, proved overwhelming as LaMarcus Aldridge scored 33 points and Kawhi Leonard had 25. The Spurs hit the Bulls with an 18-5 run to close the third quarter, Spurs reserves outplaying a mixture of Bulls starters and reserves for an 87-76 San Antonio lead after three quarters. The last time the Bulls’ deficit was under double digits was with about nine minutes left.

The result, even with the determination and perseverance, again perhaps too much of it with a continually growing epidemic of individual play, dropped the Bulls record to 14-16. They’ve lost nine of 12 with their third three-game losing streak this month. The Spurs, whom the Bulls defeated earlier this month, are 25-6.

Some wins would be nice, also. But this Bulls team is finding it has to work its way out of these kinds of games without much margin for error. They still play hard and seem engaged. There is no woe-is-us sort of result or giving in. Sometimes, it seems they want to save it themselves. On Sunday, it was Wade with 18 second half points trying to rescue the team as Jimmy Butler often does, taking the ball to the basket, trying to fight off a superior opponent.

Butler added 19 points as the defenses continued to work him hard, this time with perhaps the best of them all, Leonard. Nikola Mirotic had 11 points off the bench, all in the first half in playing a crucial role in the comeback that got the Bulls within 55-50 at halftime. Jerian Grant and Cristiano Felicio also had strong moments for a Bulls bench that was outscored by the Spurs’ just 30-29. Taj Gibson added 12 points and Robin Lopez 10.

It was Lopez who was the Spurs’ target, and this time it was effective in an other worldly first quarter for Aldridge with 20 points on nine of nine shooting. The Bulls had gotten away with Lopez defending the sharp shooting Aldridge in the Bulls victory over the Spurs Dec. 8. Aldridge was five of 15 for 10 points in that game.

Lopez, a lot like Pau Gasol, who now plays for the Spurs and had 12 points, tends to hang back in the lane to protect the basket against pick and roll and big men running the floor. So Aldridge simply pulled up and hit open jumper after open jumper to shock the Bulls in a 17-2 deficit in the first four minutes. Lopez then switched onto Gasol, who faded to the corner and made a three. Then the Spurs went smaller with David Lee for Gasol. So Lopez went back on Aldridge and Aldridge continued to sizzle. The Bulls finally got more defensive traction with Felicio, though his offense is generally limited.

“They hit their shots and they came out with a game plan,” said Wade. “Same game plan they had the first time we played them in Chicago and they didn’t make those shots, but they made it tonight. We just kept going and stayed with it. We got down 20 and came back and tied the game. So then from there it was a ball game and they made more shots than us. They ended the third very well, which kind of hurt us.”

There don’t seem to be signs of dissatisfaction around the team, nor a lack of hustle. Yes, they’ll get beat to balls, but more in physical than mental inability. The Bulls were out-rebounded, but they fought the Spurs on the offensive boards and led with 20 second chance points, Gibson with four offensive rebounds.

But obviously with the opponent shooting 82 percent in the first quarter and 60 percent in the half, there’s less opportunity to push the ball in transition. The Bulls’ assist totals have continued to decline. They had 20 Sunday and now have the second fewest in the league in the fourth quarter when they’ve tended to fall into individual play in savior mode. No one has quite been able to fill that role as they did last month.

Butler has seen more double teams and in five of his last six games has scored below his 24-point average. But he’s remained team first and optimistic about having the right attitude moving forward.

“It’s a little bit of everything right now,” said Butler. “Tonight they just started out making a lot shots. We dug ourselves a hole early, which we have done before, crawled back out of that hole and couldn’t finish it out. They have some really good players and they just executed and played better than we did tonight. We’ve got to stay high spirited. If it gets gloomy around here thing are going to go downhill very quickly. Everybody has to keep their heads up and know brighter days are ahead.

The Spurs tried to exploit Lopez again to open the second half as he’d switched onto Gasol by then. But this time the Bulls responded on the offensive end, unlike the first quarter when they missed eight of their first nine shots, mostly outside instead of pounding it inside and slowing the opposition as they’d try to do recently when they had success.

This time they went inside to Gibson and Lopez to start the second half. And suddenly with a Wade three with 7:33 left in the third quarter after Gibson and Lopez offensive rebounds, the Bulls had tied the game at 63. Rondo made a runner, Gibson a jumper and Butler a three, and the Bulls actually looked to be pulled away 70-67 with multiple scores immediately out of timeouts.

The Spurs tied the game at 71 and after he missed short, Butler shot back to grab a rebound over the Spurs two big man reserves, Dewayne Dedmon and Lee. But the Bulls committed three straight turnovers. And the Spurs move to the quicker big men was effective as Dedmon against Lopez got inside several times. The Bulls also had gone to their offensive reserves with Mirotic and Doug McDermott, which weakens the defensive rotations without Gibson. But the duo got just four shots in the second half in a combined 27 minutes as the offense again began to revert to individual play or one pass and a shot.

Manu Ginobili then made a pull up three—he didn’t pass, either—and the Bulls committed a foul as it went in for a four-point play. Wade bailed the Bulls out with a late jumper at the shot clock. But the Spurs offense was humming now and Patty Mills back cut for a layup to put the Spurs back ahead by 10. Wade grabbed his own miss and went back up for a three-point play. But the Spurs got scores from Lee and Dedmon again, completing that 18-5 close with five reserves playing.

Trailing by 11 to start the fourth quarter, the Bulls got six straight points and eight of 10 from Wade and five from Felicio, the last finishing a three-point play on a follow score. That got the Bulls as close as they would get at 98-89 with 9:02 left after Leonard and Danny Green threes offset the Wade surge. Aldridge made another jumper, and the Bulls committed two more turnovers to make it 10 in the second half, which proved fatal. Tony Parker’s open corner three put the Spurs ahead by 14 with eight minutes left and no real comeback to come.

“You have to keep going, keep learning, keep wanting to get better,” said Butler. “Everybody is doing just fine; we have to win some games. That being said, we have to do a lot of things better. I know better days are coming. We have to sustain and stay focused and keep with the grind; we have another coming tomorrow.”