This time, Spurs could not recover from slow start in first road loss

Gregg Popovich says team 'haven’t learned to play 48 minutes'

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – The San Antonio Spurs didn’t cherish that 13-0 road winning streak to start this season while it was intact, so they hardly were mourning it when it was over.

If anything, their unblemished record in road games was masking over some flaws that finally caught up to them in their 95-91 loss to the Bulls at the United Center Thursday night.

The Spurs trailed from the start, fell behind by double digits in the second quarter and were down by 18 points midway through the third. They clawed back to make it a two possession game five times down the stretch. But ultimately – after the Bulls used offensive rebounds to chew more than a minute off the clock, from 1:56 to 27.6 seconds left – San Antonio came with the proverbial too little, too late.

That was a slight departure from recent games in which the Spurs mustered just enough, just in time. Consider: They have fallen behind by 10 points or more in seven of their last eight games. They had managed to win six of the first seven by revving up in the second half, but revving didn’t get it done Thursday.

“We played 24 minutes again, just like we have the last 10 games,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “We go through the motions and that’s it. … We haven’t learned to play 48 minutes.”

Veteran forward Pau Gasol, new to the Spurs this season, knows that this half-empty style isn’t what built the organization’s legacy.

“Most of our games, we haven’t been coming out with the same edge as we have in the second half. … We just come out too flat and allow teams to get comfortable early on. And when we turn it on in the second half, we’re hoping we will be good enough, hoping to be able to rely on that. That’s not the right way to go.”

They had been as reckless at home but at 5-4, hadn’t gotten away with it the way they had on the road. At 13-0, they were within one of Golden State’s 14-0 road mark they established last season en route to a 24-0 start overall. The NBA record for consecutive road victories overall is 16, set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers during their 33-game winning streak that season.

“I have absolutely no idea. Honestly,” Popovich said by way of explanation prior to tipoff. “Because we are pretty average at best at home, and it’s not by design obviously. But the disparity, in our defensive numbers and our scoring, is dramatic home and away. I have no idea why.

“So I threw it to the analytical people, because that’s how they’re supposed to make their money. So I’m waiting for the answers. But I haven’t gotten any yet.”

Through 23 games now, San Antonio (18-5) has outscored opponents by 4.6 points per game, which ranks sixth in the NBA behind not just the Warriors (20-3) but also the Clippers (16-7), the Raptors (15-7), the Cavaliers (15-5) and the Rockets (15-7). According to basketball-reference’s Simple Rating System, which factors in strength of schedule, the Spurs should have won just 15 of their first 22 games, not 18.

Manu Ginobili shrugged at what all of them seemed to treat as a fluke.

“The fact that we haven’t been beaten on the road is just pure coincidence. Luck,” he said before the Chicago loss. “It just happened that we’ve been playing better and we got a little lucky in a few games, to tell you the truth.

“We know you have less margin for mistakes on the road – you have to take care of the ball more. But it’s not like when we are at home, we just try to be fancy. So I think we try to do the same things both home and road.”

Popovich is one of the leading practitioners of resting his players and finding recovery time in the 82-game schedule. He hasn’t held a full practice since Nov. 7, according to beat writers traveling with the team. That includes this week, with Wednesday as an off day in Chicago after back-to-back games in Milwaukee and Minnesota. But Popovich also didn’t schedule a shootaround Thursday morning.

“As you can guess, it’s impossible to empirically prove that has something to do with it,” the Spurs coach said. “But we do live by the Wilt Chamberlain philosophy: ‘You want it this morning or you want it tonight?’ We usually go for the night.”

Fitting he would cite Chamberlain, given the Lakers’ claim on the all-time road winning streak. When L.A. coach Bill Sharman hatched the idea for morning shootarounds to a) get the players out of their hotel rooms on game days lest they get stale, and b) provide disincentive from too much socializing the night before games, the headstrong Chamberlain reputedly told him, “I come to the arena once a day. You want me in the morning or you want me at night?”

Just showing up wasn’t good enough this time for the Spurs.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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