It was likely the Spurs would face Chicago without Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Parker and Jackson, however, were held out because that's what a smart coach does to show his older players that he's in their corner. Pop risked criticism with this move after RestGate in Miami, but as long as his players are fresh and happy he doesn't seem to care.
With most other teams, this would have been either a conceded defeat or a chance for seldom used players to try and make their case for more minutes by looking for the spotlight. Not so with the Spurs, who kept executing even if the players running things were nowhere close to the stars in terms of talent. That doesn't mean there were no hiccups along the way, of course.
In the first quarter, the Spurs' starters controlled the game. It was close, but the Spurs were leading before the bench unit made an appearance. The Bulls kept Luol Deng and Joakim Noah in and took advantage of the edge in front courts to earn a four point lead to finish the first 24-20.
The second quarter was curious in that the Bulls completely dominated the boards but were vastly outplayed by the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard, De Colo and a scorching hot Gary Neal scored at will. The vaunted Bulls' defense has been inconsistent at best lately and the Spurs just shred it en route to 65% shooting in the second quarter. The Bulls' bench simply couldn't score efficiently (which is not surprising considering Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson lead it) and the always improving Spurs defense held Chicago to a ridiculously low 25% from the field. Going into the break, the Spurs had turned the tide and led by nine, 52-41.
It seemed this was destined to be a blow-out when Leonard, Diaw and Green hit three pointers and the Bulls were hanging by a thread, relying on their superior rebounding to stay in the game. But like all young teams (and the Spurs were definitely a young team in this one) there was bound to be a period of over-confidence and stagnation. Gary Neal took over for De Colo at point and the offense devolved into 15 seconds of Neal dribbling only to pull up contested or Leonard trying to create off the dribble. That unit didn't have a creator and the Spurs showed how much they need one, regardless of who is on the court. The Bulls went on a run thanks to Taj Gibson, one of the most underrated players in the game. Going into the final quarter, the Spurs only led by 5, 76-71.
Unlike most young teams, though, these guys have a hall of fame coach leading them and they know and respect their roles. Nando De Colo returned to feed Tiago Splitter the ball down low and the Spurs' offense started rolling again. With San Antonio consistently getting good looks the Bulls had no choice but to foul and the Spurs made them pay, going 11-11 from the line, including 6-6 from Splitter. Leonard displayed exactly the type of offensive versatility and all-around game that has fans giddy and the Spurs pulled away for an easy win, 103-89.
- It wasn't the best individual game for De Colo but he showed the type of creative playmaking that the Spurs need from a back-up point. After a quiet first half, Nando dished out six of his seven assists the rest of the way. Gary Neal had a very Gary Neal game, scoring some huge buckets and showing nice secondary playmaking, but he simply cannot run an offense full time. He's simply not built for it. All back-up point guard decisions should be delayed until Manu returns but games like this one make me think De Colo is the way to go.
- Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard had a great game. I'm talking about the kind of game that makes me think the Spurs have their wings of the future locked up. They combined for 46 points, 10 boards and five assists. Leonard was on the court for 43 minutes and showed that as a young guy he can handle it. Having Jackson as insurance is nice, but the Spurs will need to unleash Kawhi at some point.
- Other than Gary Neal, the bench was pretty bad in this one. The only thing worth mentioning is that Matt Bonner had the worst +/- on the team. Weird.
- I usually trash Boris Diaw in my recaps simply because I expect more from him. In this one, though, I liked what I saw. He even pulled down a board and sprinted up court to try to attack the defense before it was set. If only he would consistently show that type of aggression, he would be a reasonable simile of what Lamar Odom was to those championship Lakers teams.
- I have to mention the Spurs were out-rebounded by a whopping 23 boards and allowed 17 offensive rebounds. They also only committed eight turnovers to the Bulls' 19 (10 coming from steals) and only allowed a 16% on three pointers. We've seen the Spurs rebound well; it's a question of putting it all together and exceling at all facets of the game at the same time.
This win marks the third of the RRT and keeps the Spurs at the top of the standings. I can see the Spurs improving to five and one with Cleveland and Sacramento looming. It was nice seeing the young guys shine, but I'm hoping we see the Big Three and Jackson return soon.