Not that I didn't think the Bulls couldn't beat a good team like the Spurs, but the anticipation was more just from simply not seeing it in a while. And though they were without Manu Ginobili, the Spurs looked like a formidable opponent tonight and helped make it an intense and thrilling game. And that the Bulls were able to ride out some cold streaks and pull it out late made it even sweeter.
It was a game that told the story of both many heroes and yet also a lack of them. Derrick Rose notwithstanding, of course. The reigning MVP had a highlight-reel performance on pretty much every one of his 10 made field goals, each with an insane degree of difficulty as he burst and twisted his way towards the rim, then the final two from longer distance to stave off the Spurs late push. Forcing Rose further from the basket became outright double-teaming, and fortunately Luol Deng hit two 3-pointers in the final 5 minutes to punish the move by San Antonio.
On the first of those big shots, Deng emphatically exulted at actually making any attempt at all, as he had been 1-6 from the field up until that point. And Deng wasn't alone in his futility, for many stretches it seemed like only Rose was going to be able to produce for the Bulls in the second half. And it's still a season-long concern when seeing those times that Rose not only has to lead, but be an insanely ferocious and majestic shotmaker to merely get the Bulls some points. Rose didn't even have a great shooting night himself, once again going 1-5 from the 3-point line. But honestly, who else on the team is going to create space for him to get open 3-point looks?
Whether he is indeed 'the difference' in the upcoming playoffs or not, Rip Hamilton isn't at that point to reliably provide such a dynamic yet. Even though he's not really shot the ball well this year (when he's played), Rip's made a difference in the offense simply by being a threat and oftentimes it was his passing that'd produce the most points. But going up against a solid defensive team like the Spurs was new for a Rip-incorporated lineup, and it showed in that no longer was the opponent content to stand and watch the Bulls effortlessly pass and move. The Spurs have crisper reactions to when Rip came off those screens, and thus made his decisions a little tougher and ultimately forced some long 2-point misses. They looked to be makeable shots, but Rip was never known as a very efficient shooter even when he wasn't old and groin-impaired. The Bulls starting lineup was actually their worst unit of the night, a very stark contrast from what we've usually seen when Rip plays.
With Rip being both ineffective and still on the Bogans-plan minutes-wise, there were a couple bench performances that helped compensate: CJ Watson in the first half and Ronnie Brewer in the second. It's hard to overstate how important Watson's shot creation is to the bench mob, without him chucking there is no way the unit can stay on the court. So if we want to have great shared experiences like seeing Omer Asik locking down Tiago Splitter in the post, Watson has to put up points, and he did so with 10 (4/5 shooting) and 2 assists in his first half stint. Then after an abysmal 15-point 3rd quarter, Ronnie Brewer scored the first 6 points of the 4th, and got his next make in crunch time after Kyle Korver, though being 2-2 from three-point range himself, was yanked for defensive Korverness.
And speaking of benchings, an early-season story cropped back up: the starting frontcourt not playing the fourth quarter. But, wait, there's progress! It was only Carlos Boozer who rode the pine in that time, as Joakim Noah had a better night and finished with 10pts, 13rebs (though the jumper was off and he was noticeably left open to shoot it). Booz did contribute to a dominating 1st half on the boards (43% OReb%, finished more near their usual with 28%) that kept the Bulls in the game. But in the second half, Booz had his typical defensive lapses made untenable by a poor offensive night. He finished 4-13 and seemingly was regressing as the game wore on, his shot getting comically farther away and higher arcing each time. Like seeing the usual Rip Hamilton machine sputter, maybe the capsizing of the Booze cruise was caused simply by having a defender near him for once.
Between Booze, Rip, and a general over-reliance on Rose, there are certainly no great leaps forward shown by the Bulls tonight. But the status quo was there: their depth once again presented itself at different moments in the game, big shots were eventually hit in the 4th quarter by non-Rose personnel, and Rose himself looks as good as ever. A story heading into the game was Tony Parker's place in the MVP conversation, and as long as such conversation acknowledges he's in the pack behind the current holder of that crown I guess that's fine. It was Tim Duncan who carried the Spurs when they'd surge into the lead, and the unheralded wing duo (oh how we all laughed in the game preview!) of Gary Neal and Danny Green providing a lot of the help. Heck, Neal hit so many shots (17 of their last 22 points until Jefferson's garbage-time shot) that you could almost figure he did what Manu Ginobili would've instead. Then again, maybe not. But Neal and the Spurs made for a playoff-type game and despite their flaws the Bulls proved to be better in it. There's nothing outright discouraging in acknowledging it: it's not like there are any teams that are flawless at this point, and there's plenty of time to work on them.