Bulls face NBA-best Spurs before All-Star break


Feb 16

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

I’ll be at Thursday’s Bulls-Spurs game at the United Center, though it probably is one of those games you might rather watch on TNT.

That’s because while it is a matchup of the team with the best home record in the Eastern Conference (Bulls) and the team with the best road record in the NBA (Spurs)–and a good test for both teams heading into this weekend’s All-Star break–the best part may be Craig Sager’s attempt at a sideline interview with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Popovich, with the resignation (retirement?) of Jerry Sloan, is now the longest tenured coach in the NBA in his 15th consecutive season with the Spurs.

But don’t mention that because that stuff makes Pop mad, like suggesting just because the Spurs at 46-9 with the best home and road record in the NBA are the best team in the league.

What, are you guys idiots!?

Actually, there was the playoff series last year with the Spurs trailing 2-0 and about to be swept by the Suns when at his post game Popovich was asked what the team should do to win a game.

“Try hard,” Popovich offered.

“Can’t you guys think of any better questions than that?” he wondered.

Good stuff.

“There are teams playing better than we are,” Popovich said as the Spurs went to 6-2 on their cross country “rodeo” road trip that concludes in Chicago Thursday before Popovich leaves to coach the Western Conference All-Stars. “Just because we have the best record doesn’t mean we are the best team. To be what we have to be we have to be better defensively.”

Popovich is correct, of course.

The Spurs aren’t the defensive team they have been in winning four championships since 1999. Perennially at the top in defensive field goal percentage, the Spurs are 12th this season while the Bulls are second, just behind Miami. Aging a bit, which could be an issue, the Spurs are 26th defending the three. The Bulls second.

A lot of that is due to the decline of Tim Duncan, who struggles in the pick-and-roll now while the Spurs don’t play a very big front line with the burly DeJuan Blair starting at center. Though I do expect to eventually see more of Tiago Splitter, who has had some moments on this trip.

The Spurs, though, now are one of the better offensive teams, sixth in scoring, fourth in shooting and second in threes.

They are healthy for the first time in several years with Manu Ginobili playing at an MVP level while being the most humble superstar this side of Derrick Rose. There’s been talk this season around the Bulls of the potentially deleterious effect of benching Keith Bogans, who has played well lately. Popovich doesn’t worry. Ginobili started all this season after being a sixth man much of his career, though on this trip Popovich brought him off the bench one game. No big deal.

Thinking of Ginobili, one of the best and most cooperative guys in the NBA, I’m reminded of another classic sideline interview with Popovich when an ESPN reporter asked why Popovich thought Ginobili could bring the Spurs back.

Popovich stared in some disbelief and said, “Because he’s Manu Ginobili.”

The reporter stared. Popovich stared.

End of interview.

Popovich doesn’t suffer fools, and we know where they generally work.

Just a regular guy from the Region, as the Northwest Indiana area of East Chicago is known. Popovich was born there and went to Merrillville High School before the Air Force Academy and a stint in military intelligence. So he knows discipline and he knows the ridiculous.

He is much like Sloan in that way, able to be demanding of his best players because he is the same to them all. Like the old Jerry Kramer line about Vince Lombardi, “He treats us all like dogs.”

It isn’t quite that way as Popovich’s sarcasm runs through the team as well. There was one famous moment when the notoriously poor free throw shooting Spurs were missing a bunch and Popovich yelled on the bench the next guy who misses one owes him a car. Duncan deadpanned, “What color do you want?”

Pop was getting annoyed earlier this month with the Spurs some seven games up on the rest of the Western Conference with many suggesting they were the best team. Would they stop with that! The Spurs were 2-0 over the Lakers and ready to play them a third time.

“They are the best team in the West,” Popovich said. “I think the struggles are overblown by you guys and gals. They are who they are. They’ve been doing this a long time. They just won two [championships] in a row again and there’s no doubt perhaps there’s going to be some nights when it’s just not all there emotionally. We run into that now. We’ve got the best record and we run into that and we haven’t won a championship in a long time so we don’t have that excuse and it happens to us.”

So the Spurs went out and beat the Lakers again.

Heck, they might even get in one of those ABC Sunday Showcase games if LeBron says it’s OK.

So onto the Bulls, who should have beaten them in San Antonio when no one really was paying attention. That was mid-November and the Bulls were up 17 and simply dominating.

Until the quarter from hell.

The Spurs cut that deficit to 10 at halftime as Tony Parker streaked out for a couple of scores, and then the Spurs buried the Bulls with a 37-12 third quarter as they rained down threes from Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson and Ginobili and Duncan had his way around the boards. Blair had started at center, but Popovich, who’s never afraid to make a change and is good at in game adjustments, replaced him with Bonner to spread the court. It caught the Bulls flatfooted and late to respond.

Derrick Rose had a huge fourth quarter to get the Bulls within seven midway through the fourth. But Ginobili, Parker and Duncan all hit big shots and it was over. They’ve been there and done that, which perhaps is why Popovich joked the other day the season is boring because he keeps putting the same guys out and keeps winning.

Hardly. Popovich has done a deft job of working in guys like Gary Neal and veteran Antonio McDyess to give the Spurs unusual depth that does make their record less a mirage.

The Spurs battered the Bulls on the boards in that November game, one of the few games the Bulls were outrebounded. And Joakim Noah was playing then, though not Carlos Boozer. Noah will not return until next week.

Still, it’s another one of those tests, those so-called statement games for the Bulls against the team no one wants to admit is a title contender while they continue to beat everyone.

After that loss in San Antonio, the Bulls were 6-4 and starting to feel perhaps they had something going.

“We felt we should have won the game,” said Luol Deng. “I’m not making excuses. But we were playing a really good team. The same thing with Boston (overtime loss on the road). It’s a good sign to play teams like this, but we have to do better. Those teams are where we want to be.”

The Bulls get to take another step in that direction Thursday as they already can claim wins over the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and Magic.

Meanwhile, it always seems it’s the Spurs who are overlooked or not taken seriously. They’ve probably put together the quietest dynasty in NBA history and the least celebrated Big Three ever.

So there was the time the Spurs went to the White House after winning one of their championship. George Bush was president and wasn’t having that much success with his so called coalition of the willing. So seeing the president, Popovich said, “Can the Frenchman come in?”

Yes, this is going to be fun.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: