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Spurs' late-game struggles continue in 92-89 loss to Bulls

The Spurs came close to beating the Bulls in Chicago but couldn't overcome poor bench play and costly mistakes in the final minutes.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs' win streak is over at five. The Bulls closed the game better in Chicago and beat San Antonio 92-89 on a night in which neither squad was at its best. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge had 25 and 21 points, respectively, but didn't have much help from the rest of the team, as Tony Parker was the only other Spur to finish in double digits. Pau Gasol led a balanced Chicago attack with 18 points.

The great thing about having stars is they can carry a team through stretches of mediocre overall play. Their teammates did not look sharp but LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker played at a high level. That was enough to first build a lead and then prevent the Bulls from creating separation once they found their footing. Those three combined for 33 of the Spurs' 48 first half points and wreaked havoc on Chicago's defense. Parker in particular looked unstoppable when guarded by a slow, disinterested Derrick Rose, tallying seven first-half assists as well as nine points.

The Spurs needed those three to produce like that to stay in the game because the bench struggled early. Their typically energetic, cohesive play just wasn't there on Monday. The spacing was off and defensively they couldn't contain the Bulls. The all-sub unit of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, Boris Diaw and David West not only couldn't build on a nine-point lead, they allowed Chicago to get back into striking distance. Things were close from then to the end of the half, as neither team could string together enough stops to get the upper hand. At the break, the Bulls were up by one, 49-48.

Nothing really changed in the second half. The Spurs' starting five continued to outplay Chicago's five but the bench remained ineffective, even after Gregg Popovich gave Kyle Anderson's minutes to Danny Green in an attempt to improve the spacing. It was one of those nights in which even when the subs did manage to get some good looks against a stout Bulls' defense, the shots just wouldn't fall. The bench checked in with a five-point lead late in the third quarter and left the game with a six-point deficit early in the fourth. For the night the bench shot 6-of-22 (27%). Only Ginobili, Diaw, Mills, Anderson and West saw the floor off the bench in Chicago.

The Spurs mounted a comeback attempt with Leonard leading the charge by being aggressive, pulling out some breathtaking moves and getting to the line.

The Spurs' defense tightened up and the game went down to the wire. San Antonio had its chances to get the W but it just was not to be.

Aldridge, Ginobili, Leonard and Parker all attempted shots after Kawhi got the ball back by stripping Nikola Mirotic near the Bulls' rim with 1:22 to go, but couldn't get that last bucket. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler hit some free throws to seal the win for their team.

Losing to the Bulls in Chicago is not a tragedy, especially this early in the season. Games like Monday's are simply reminders that as exhilarating as the good moments have been so far, there's plenty of work left to be done. It's going to be a while before we see the Spurs reach their full potential and that's OK.

Game notes

  • The final stretch of play for the Spurs probably caused you to involuntarily yell if you were watching:

    1) The Spurs try to set up a pick and pop opportunity for Aldridge by having both bigs set screens for Ginobili. The execution is bad, the Bulls sniff it out and Gasol is right there at the rim to block Aldridge's driving layup.

    The Bulls bring the ball up and Manu fouls Gasol 19 feet from the basket after gambling for a steal. Free throws.

    3) The Spurs try their patented hi-low from Duncan to Ginobili but the Bulls defend it well. Ginobili ends up attempting a running floater that misses.

    4) Manu overplays the pass to Butler on the other end, allowing him to drive. Aldridge is late to help and fouls him. Free throws.

    5) Pop gives Leonard the last shot but Kawhi picks up his dribble too soon and has no place to go. He launches a heavily contested three that doesn't even touch the rim. Duncan rebounds it and passes to Parker and the Spurs have get another chance, but Parker is rushed and misses badly. Ball game. Yikes.

  • It was great to see some vintage LaMarcus Aldridge buckets early on. He flashed that uncanny ability to hit those long twos that every defense concedes now, which is a great weapon to have. The Spurs need to do a better job of finding him late in games -- he took just one shot in the fourth quarter -- but Aldridge was huge in the first half. 

  • Kawhi Leonard has moments in which he completely dominates games on both ends. I truly didn't see him becoming such a versatile scorer so early this season. Sometimes his aggressiveness turns into tunnel vision but those are growing pains the Spurs are surely happy to go through as they develop their new franchise star. 

  • Tony Parker having a good game is not surprising anymore. He had 13 points, nine assists and zero turnovers against Chicago. Sure, he was guarded by Derrick Rose for most of the night, but he made good play after good play. I would have liked to see him have a bigger role late in the game.

  • The bench was a complete disaster. Plus/minus stats for single games can be deceiving but every sub being deep in the negative accurately represents just how much they hurt the team. All-sub units work against bad teams but it seems at least one -- if not both -- of Leonard and Aldridge will need to be on the court with Patty, Manu and Boris in the playoffs for the Spurs to sustain or extend leads. 

  • Danny Green and Tim Duncan have been marginalized in the new offense. Green is getting some good looks but is not hitting from outside and is not getting as many chances to get points off cuts on a more deliberate team attack. Duncan is simply shooting much less to accommodate others. We'll just have to get used to seeing low scoring totals for those two. 

Next up

The Spurs will host the Bucks on Wednesday. Milwaukee has been a disaster on defense after being one of the best teams in the league on that end last season. San Antonio's offense hasn't been great but scoring shouldn't be a problem next against the Bucks and SA's defense is consistently great.

For the opponent's perspective, visit Blog a Bull.