Getting up for the big games has rarely been a problem for this bunch of Bulls in recent memory, and with the formidable and decorated San Antonio Spurs coming to town, there was very little doubt the effort would be as present as the sold-out crowd.
The execution was the question, and even though they didn’t score a basket in the last half of the fourth quarter, the defense of their headliners closed out the 92-89 win at the United Center.
Jimmy Butler forced a miss from Kawhi Leonard with seconds remaining, then Derrick Rose got just enough of his hands on Tony Parker’s corner triple after Tim Duncan recovered the ball, sealing the win.
“I thought Jimmy defended great,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He made Kawhi take a very difficult shot. We knew their offense would try to bat it out. Derrick made a key play and he had the corner.”
Rose had a spurt late in the second quarter but shot five for 17 while Butler scored 14 on just nine shots, not looking very aggressive offensively as Leonard, his counterpart, scored 25 with eight rebounds in 40 minutes.
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But the Bulls relied on their defense late, including Pau Gasol, who had a block on LaMarcus Aldridge late when the Spurs could’ve taken a lead. Aldridge had his way with the Bulls with 21 and 12 rebounds but couldn’t find much traction late, much like both sides in terms of effectiveness on that end.
The Spurs went one of seven from the field in the last four minutes themselves, shooting 29 percent in the fourth.
“To hold that team to 16 fourth quarter points was a great effort,” Hoiberg said. “They’re obviously a great team with great firepower.”
Gasol had 18 with 13 rebounds but missed 12 of his 18 shots, helping contribute to the offensive lethargy to finish.
“Everyone contributed tonight in a positive way. This was one of the hottest and biggest teams in the league,” Gasol said. “It was a great test for us tonight and a good chance to bounce back after such a tough loss.”
It was the bench that brought the power, turning a 73-70 deficit to start the fourth to an 81-75 lead within three minutes. Joakim Noah turned back the clock, Tony Snell awakened to hit more jump shots than he’s hit in the last month and Taj Gibson followed up a Doug McDermott missed layup with a dunk while the Spurs stood flat-footed.
Noah had one of those bounce-back games, looking light on his feet and even blowing by David West for a layup then doing the same to Duncan a couple plays later, on the way to an eight-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist evening.
“He’s confident when he’s making moves and taking shots he knows he can make,” said Butler of Noah. “He gets everybody riled up and hype. To have him making plays is big.”
He helped the Bulls to a 32-point second quarter after the first was played at the Spurs’ pace, and it looked like their defense would lock up the Bulls for 48 minutes, holding them to 17 points on 38 percent shooting.
But they put together an efficient showing before halftime, started by the likes of McDermott and Noah with his passing and finished off by Rose, who hit three straight baskets before the half, going head-up with Parker, to energize the United Center and propelling the Bulls to a 49-48 lead.
Snell and McDermott, on the day the Bulls announced Mike Dunleavy suffered a setback with his recovery from back injury, combined to score just as much as Rose and Butler (23 points to 25).
It was played in close quarters, as the Bulls never led by more than six and the Spurs never had anything greater than a nine-point advantage, with Aldridge scoring big early and Leonard doing the damage later, as he had multiple plays called for him down the stretch, making Butler use most if not all of his energy on that end of the floor.
Midway through the fourth, the Spurs never found themselves away from arm’s reach after the Bulls’ emotional rush, trailing by one and taking the lead on a Tony Parker jumper with a little over four minutes remaining.
Regrouping by way of making their free throws down the stretch, the Bulls started a stretch of nine of 10 games at home with a win they needed in the worst way, against the best possible opponent this side of Oakland, California.