SAN ANTONIO - Prior to Wednesdays game, in the midst of complimentary comments about his opponent that evening, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau foreshadowed the battle of wills that would ensue.
This league, its a test. Its going to test your will, your toughnessboth mental and physicaland everybody has the situations like this, so you have to be able to get through those things and youve got to play tough on the road, and hopefully we can do that.
His Bulls (29-8) passed their first major exam after the All-Star break, holding off the Spurs (24-11), 96-89, at the AT&T Center, behind a typically brilliant performance from Derrick Rose, pushing the teams record to 18-0 when holding an opponent under 90 points.
We knew it would be a tough game. Theyre a great team and theyve been great here all year long, Thibodeau said afterwards. I thought our guys did a great job, the bench, in particular. They provided a big spark for us.
As the Spurs did when they hosted the Bulls at home last season, the veteran squad pushed the tempo from the games outset, leading to transition opportunities and putting the guests on their heels, as they started the game in a 9-2 hole. All-Star point guard Tony Parker (11 points, nine assists, six rebounds) was the orchestrator for San Antonio, using his speedone of the few floor generals in the league to rival Rose in that departmentto create for himself and his teammates, getting all five Spurs starters on the board in the early going, though the Bulls quickly battled back to narrow the deficit.
Meanwhile, Rose (29 points, four assists) shouldered the offensive load for the visitorswith adequate support from Joakim Noah (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Carlos Boozer, who were active on the glassbut gave the Bulls fan base (not to mention the crowd at the AT&T Center; a hush fell over the arena) a scare after he banged knees with Parker and writhed in pain on the floor.
I didnt want to look, quipped Thibodeau. Like anytime he goes down, but the same holds true for any player. It was a bang-bang play, but usually he bounces up pretty quick, so I was a little concerned.
Rose himself confirmed that he was fine afterwards.
When I first hit him, it was a lot of pain, but after laying down there for a little bit, I got up. I was good, he recounted. Its just basketball, where youre going to bump each other. A little sore, but I was able to play through the game.
At the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls trailed 22-20, as the Rose-Parker matchup (the latter picked up two fouls in short succession toward the end of the first quarter) took center stage.
Every point guard Im playing against, its fun. I love the challenge. Hes a very point guard, knows all the moves, plays great for that team, one of the leaders for that team and me and my teammates just tried to hold him, Rose said of Parker, who, along with Noah, attracted a large contingent of French media to the game.
Its my teammates, man. Its hard sticking people like that one-on-one. We just tried to make him play in a crowd, contest all his shots. Hes a great point guard, tried to take some things from him, but its too hard. Youve just got to put all your attention on him when he has the ball.
Thibodeau added about his point guards performance when facing a more experienced All-Star counterpart: I think hes got to read the game. Things werent going well for us early on and I thought defensively, he played very hard.
A less-heralded point guard, C.J. Watson (12 points, four assists), was the star of the show early in the second quarter, as the backup came out in an offensive-minded fashion, aiding the Bulls in overtaking their home team and building a slim cushion by the periods midway point.
C.J., hes the leader of that group and he came out real aggressive tonight, said Thibodeau. I thought he ran the team great and I think that was a big part of the game, the second quarter.
San Antonio, however, didnt wilt, and with contributions from the likes of role players low-profile starters DeJuan Blair and Danny Green, reserve sharpshooter Gary Neal (21 points), second-year swingman James Anderson and Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter, as well as future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan (18 points, 10 rebounds), kept the contest close, despite an uncharacteristically high number of turnovers on both sides.
Thibodeau gradually reinserted his regulars and behind Roses scoring, the visitors once again obtained some breathing room, as an advantage on the boards and tremendous individual hustle plays helped give them momentum. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 50-42 lead, hoping to extend their undefeated streak when leading at the half on the road to 15-0 on the season.
The two squads threw haymakers at each other immediately following the break, but the Spurs soon took the upper hand, as Duncan was a direct beneficiary of Parkers playmaking, including the aging veteran running the floor for a fast-break dunk. Chicagos shooting grew cold, perhaps partly as a result of San Antonios defense, but also due to settling for outside jumpers, as opposed to the strategy that reaped their first-half lead.
Duncan got going in the second half, said Thibodeau. He was terrific in the second half, so it put a lot of pressure on us.
Behind Duncans savvy and scoring, the hosts stormed back to overtake the Bulls, who couldnt find any consistent scoring beyond Rose -- who continued to knock down shots off the dribble, finish aggressively at the rim and get to the charity stripe. But the offensive efforts of the leagues reigning MVP alone werent enough to prevent the Spurs from taking a 66-65 edge into the final stanza.
Commented Thibodeau on the stretch: We were sort of running low on energy at the end of the third, so we went to the bench earlier and they were great at the end of the third, start of the fourth, so they did their job.
Rose chimed in: Sometimes our bench wins games for us. Tonight was an example of that.
Both coaches utilized all-reserve lineups to begin the fourth quarter and the Bench Mob held serve, propelled by Watson and Taj Gibson, ensuring the Bulls starters reentered a contest that remained even halfway through the period. After acquiring some separation, despite Neals repeated successful forays into the paint, Chicago maintained its advantage, as timely contributions from previously dormant Luol Deng (10 points, nine rebounds) and Ronnie Brewer, as well as expected clutch play from Rose, held off the Spurs as the game entered its stretch run.
Thibodeau was impressed with Neal, a 27-year-old second-year Spurs find via Europe after a high-scoring college career: I dont know if hes under the radar because everyone knows how tough he is. I think hes improved. He had a great year last year. I think hes even better this year. Can hit the three, but hes also added that runner. He can put it on the floor, if youre closing hard to him and hes got a great demeanor about him, too. You can see hes very confident, but thats also the mark of their team.
Following a Bulls turnover, Neal knocked down a huge triple to make it a one-possession game with just over two minutes remaining, but Rose responded with a floater off the glass. San Antonio answered back, as Duncan scored over Noah in the post, but once again, Rose countered with a contested pull-up jumper to silence the raucous crowd, giving the visitors an 89-84 lead with 1:10 to play.
We sort of got stagnant and then down the stretch, hes got the capability of making big shot after big shot, and then he made the right play, said Thibodeau of the 23-year-old wunderkind. That was a great play where he hit Ronnie in the corner, Ronnie touched it to Lu, big three right there. A lot of big plays down the stretch.
After a timeout, another Neal bucket extended the Spurs chances, but on the ensuing possession, Deng, the Bulls other All-Star, drilled a clutch shot from distance to put Chicago up, 92-86, with 39.6 seconds on the clock.
I felt like it was one of those games where I didnt have a lot of shots. I wasnt sitting down, thinking, I shot bad. I just felt like I didnt have a lot of looks. Thats how it goes sometimes, said Deng of his thought process. I missed some shots, I knew I didnt get a lot of looks, but I knew when it comes down to the fourth quarter, I was going to get some looks and I knocked them down.
Thibodeau concurred: His shots were not falling, but he had the mental toughness to stay with it and he wasnt rattled, and he made two big shotsone off the pick-and-roll and the three off the touch pass by Ronnieso when we needed him the most, he came through.
A subsequent parade to the free-throw line ensued, as the home team was forced to send the Bulls to the charity stripe, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to catch up.
Were definitely proud. Coming here, theyre a team where they play great here, play with a lot of energy up here and we played together, stuck through it and came up with a good win, said Rose. The intensity in the crowd and the players, how each team came out and just started playing, you could tell thatyou never know, this matchup can be in the Finals or whereverso just try to play hard against them.
Right when we came in, we knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. When you come in, its like a playoff atmosphere. Every time you come in the building, the fans are great. Our fans come support us a little bit. Theyve got great players, a great coaching staff. We just tried to come out and play a complete game, he continued. Their goal is the same as ours and thats to win a championship, do whatever it takes and thats just what I tried to do out there, do whatever it takes to win that game.
We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We believe. I know the coaches are extremely happy with us. Were extremely happy with ourselves, playing this team on a back-to-back.
Concluded Thibodeau: When youre on the roadyou have to play that way in every gamebut in particular, on the road, its just you and your teammates and your coaches, thats it. So, you have to have resiliency, you have to have toughnessphysical toughness, mental toughnesscourage. You need all those things and youve got to persevere when things arent going your way to keep marching forward, and thats what our guys did."