It’s a good thing Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau declined to call this a benchmark game, saying before tipoff: “You don’t get extra points for beating someone who is perceived as an elite team.”
OK, but this loss should count as two in the standings. Or 20. That’s how bad it was, at least before a furious late rally made the final score a respectable 104-96.
The Bulls trailed 61-33 at the half — and that came after they closed with an 8-4 “run.”
The 28-point spread was not the largest halftime deficit in Bulls history, but it was close. They trailed the Pistons 83-49 in 1969, only to lose 158-114.
The play that typified Tuesday’s first half: A stumbling Kirk Hinrich barely managed to feed Taj Gibson, who back-rimmed his slam dunk attempt, sending the ball into the front row.
The Spurs led 38-14 after one quarter, with Tony Parker (16 points) single-handedly besting the home team. Only the Clippers, with 41 against the Bulls on Jan. 24, scored more first-quarter points.
“Readiness to play, that’s the biggest thing,” Thibodeau said. “That is completely on me. My job is to have them ready. We had no edge to us.”
Said Bulls guard Jimmy Butler: “It’s on us; we’re the ones out there playing. Thibs can only do so much. We knew they’d be ready and we weren’t. … We have a lot of corrections to make.”
Is this the same Bulls team that took down the defending NBA champions two days earlier, a glorious overtime victory over the Heat that had fans dreaming about a Derrick Rose-less run to the Finals?
What fueled that game, to quote Joakim Noah, was “hate” for the opponent.
The Bulls professed nothing but admiration for a San Antonio franchise Thibodeau calls “the gold standard.”
The Spurs, who improved their NBA-best record to 47-16, were short-handed Jan. 29 when the Bulls stunned them 96-86 in San Antonio. Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter all missed the game.
“We’re all healthy,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Hopefully we can stay that way.”
They got fat Tuesday, shooting 57.1 percent from 3-point land by knocking down 12 of 21.
Tim Duncan had just four points in 27-plus minutes, but the Spurs didn’t need him.
The Bulls, as always, fought till the end. They rallied against the Spurs’ backups, cutting it to 102-94 on a Jimmer Fredette drive with 38 seconds to play.
But their wretched first quarter was too much to overcome.
“That’s a championship-caliber team playing on all cylinders, going after it,” Thibodeau said of the Spurs. “If you don’t match that intensity, you’ll be in a big hole.”
D.J. Augustin scored a team-high 24 points off the bench, and Butler had 23. Noah finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
The third quarter began with Carlos Boozer turning the ball over. Leonard cruised to the basket for an unopposed slam, prompting Thibodeau to call for time with his team down 63-35.
A plea for mercy would have been more appropriate.