SAN ANTONIO - The six days off for San Antonio over All-Star Weekend were a blessing in the middle of this chaotic season. But an unfortunate by-product of extra rest can often be manifested in the form of rust, and the Spurs truly felt the effects of their hiatus on Wednesday night.
The Bulls came to town one night after going to the wire in Chicago against the Hornets, but even in the SEGABABA the No. 2 seed in the East mustered up plenty of energy down the stretch to hand the Spurs just their second home loss of the season, 96-89, at the AT&T Center. Wednesday's game also offered up an obviously definitive statement: the Bulls are good. Really good. And though Spurs fans don't really need it, the loss also built further proof this team needs to be healthy come playoff time to have any shot at a fifth ring. No Manu Ginobili, no chance.
It's something we've harped on consistently this year, so it's not news the Spurs' biggest concern besides overall team chemistry and performance is their health. On nights like these, against the likes of the league's MVP and a brutal Tom Thibodeau coached defense, what Manu (and Kawhi Leonard, who sat the game out as he heals) brings to the table is invaluable. The beauty of the San Antonio Big 3 over the years has been their ability to pick one another up if one of the individuals is struggling. Without Ginobili's presence on the floor, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were left staring into the teeth of a defense that can suffocate opposing offenses with its range and athleticism. And facing Thibodeau's Bulls is never the ideal cure when you're suffering from a rusty shooting hand.
But what this really came down to is the importance of the superstar - the clutch-time performer - in the NBA. And not to take away from what Tony has done this year in what might be his best as a pro, but we know who the Spurs' go-to guy is. When you're down arguably your best player, going up against Rose - who had 29 points - is not a fun task. The former Memphis Tiger is a lightning rod. I swear, a quarter of the fans in the arena had on a red or white No. 1 jersey, and their support was easily heard throughout the game. And for good reason, because that guy is almost impossible to describe with words. His size, strength and uncanny ability to get to the rim make him both a joy and a menace to watch. And seeing him in person is something any big NBA fan needs to see.
He's an impossible matchup for anyone in the league not named LeBron. And what makes him so unguardable is how he is able to beat you off the dribble and elevate to a point where you have no chance to reach. Make him take a jumper and he shoots it right over you. Allow him to penetrate and goes into attack mode. Some of the shots he was able to get off in the paint were absolutely ridiculous, not to mention the fact they went in. And while he was only 10-23 from the floor, it's the timing and the style with which he hits those shots that make them so deflating.
It wasn't just Rose on this night, however. C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer combined for 20 points to form an unexpected scoring duo, and they all came during key stretches in the second and fourth quarters when the Bulls were struggling to get buckets. Tack on Luol Deng's two gigantic 3-pointers down the stretch in the final 4:20 and the Bulls did what they do very well: close out games.
But one thing that can't be ignored about this game was the fact that even playing with significant rust; even with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan struggling for much of the game, the Spurs had a shot. Parker, who is quietly being mentioned in the MVP discussion with the level of his play on the court, managed only 11 points in his battle with Rose on national television. As he's done all year, however, he managed to contribute elsewhere with nine assists and six rebounds. Duncan had a strange (rust-covered) night as 12 of his 18 points came during the third quarter when he became suddenly red-hot after being ice-cold for most of the game. But he, too, picked up the slack elsewhere with 10 boards, two steals and two blocks. The brightest spot on Wednesday was Gary Neal.
After losing a four-point lead within the first minute and a half of the fourth quarter, Neal went off. He scored 15 of his 21 points in the final frame and single-handedly kept the Spurs hanging around the rest of the way. Only three other players scored in the fourth as Duncan, Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner combined for just eight points. Neal continues to showcase his ability to score in a variety of ways, whether it be from the perimeter or the paint. Armed with a floater, runners and a jumper he can get off at any angle, Neal's repertoire of moves has proven dangerous at this early point of his career. He kept San Antonio hanging around until the final moments, but nothing more.
It was the kind of matchup you'd expect between teams of this caliber, both of which are expected to make deep playoff runs in a couple of months. But don't take away too much from this game, keeping in mind two things in particular. The Bulls are a title contender that is primarily healthy and a challenge to any team in the NBA. On the other hand, this was not a healthy Spurs team. There was no Ginobili or Leonard, T.J. Ford made his first appearance in nearly two months and Neal and Tiago Splitter returned from recent injuries, setting the silver and black behind the 8-ball from the start. And isn't it funny, during a season where players have barely had time to breathe in between games, we actually saw rust? I had forgotten what it looked like.
And there are no excuses, certainly not coming from the Spurs. Us NBA-writer types might make 'em all day, but not this team. In fact, Gregg Popovich and his players all talked after the game about how pleased they actually were. San Antonio had good looks at the basket and played some stretches of very tough defense, but shots that are generally the Spurs' bread and butter were not going in. Some sloppy turnovers and a few defensive lapses down the stretch spelled doom against one of the league's best. Most of the time basketball's not a science. When you're missing open shots against a top-3 team while your best player sits on the bench in street clothes, the outcome will generally not swing in your favor. (I didn't want to bring this lexicon item back, but ... I hate LWM.)
So as San Antonio continues to nurse its players back to health and into game shape, it's important to remember that it's just one game after a long lay-off. And I know this was a much-anticipated one in front of a national television audience which makes this pill a bit more bitter to swallow for Spurs fans, but I can assure you the feeling will pass soon. After all, the Bobcats are in town on Friday.
Side note: Danny Green suffered a left shoulder injury and had it wrapped in the locker room following the game. He only played a minute of the fourth quarter, but the injury doesn't seem serious.
Stars of the game
3. Tim Duncan:
18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Timmy was solid, even while shaking off that rust. His third quarter was more than solid, however. It was fantastic. Behind Duncan the Spurs climbed out of an eight-point halftime hole to take the lead 69-65 heading into the fourth.
2. Gary Neal:
21 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds
The second and third stars here could probably be interchangeable, but to me Neal's fourth-quarter effort gives him the nod. He can really go on a roll sometimes, and he did on Wednesday as he kept SA in it on the offensive end.
1. Derrick Rose:
29 points, 4 assists
I couldn't justify a "Star of the Game" list without Rose at the top. Sure, he's had better games, but he was huge in timely situations in his team's win in San Antonio.