With 2:53 left in the second quarter, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik hooked up on a sweet pick and roll play that looked like something out of an instructional video. Korver delivered a perfect pass, Asik dunked the ball with authori-tah, and the Bulls built a nearly inconceivable 45-28 lead.
Everything was clicking. The Bulls starters had stood up to their Spurs counterparts. Chicago’s bench was playing with energy and inspiration. The offensive execution was crisp and efficient. The defense was stifling. Considering the competition, it may have been the best 21 minutes and seven seconds of basketball the Bulls had played all season.
I mean, think about it. The Spurs were 8-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak. And holding them to 28 points during the first 21:07? We’re talking about one of the best scoring teams in the league. San Antonio came into the game ranked 2nd in PPG (108.9), 3rd in Offensive Rating (111.8) and 6th in Pace (96.3).
To that point, Tom Thibodeau’s defense was making them look like a bunch of pickup ballers who were playing together for the first time.
But here’s the thing about running, gunning, high-scoring teams. You never know when the dam is going to burst.
Obviously, the third quarter was a disaster of near-epic proportions. It was like some dark magic transformed the Bulls into the Clippers for 12 minutes. Chicago shot 6-for-23 and scored only 12 points. That was a season low for a single quarter. Meanwhile, the Spurs were like a napalm storm (15-for-21 for 71 percent shooting) en route to dropping 37 third quarter points.
The Bulls’ improbable 17-point lead had been voodoo’d into a 16-point deficit heading into the final quarter.
To me, though, the real trouble began 19 seconds after Asik’s authoritative slam. San Antonio’s George Hill knocked down a long jumper while getting fouled by Korver. Initially, the shot was ruled a three-pointer and it looked like Hill was going to get the chance to convert a rare four-point play. Thibs called timeout, and the officials correctly downgraded Hill’s shot to a two-pointer.
But the damage was done. That play gave the Spurs a little life. Hill hit the free throw to cut Chicago’s lead to 14. After the teams traded empty possessions, Tony Parker drove in for a layup while getting fouled by Korver. His free throw cut the Bulls’ lead to 11 with 1:59 left in the quarter.
In all, San Antonio closed the quarter on a 9-2 run cut Chicago’s halftime lead to 47-37.
So, really, as mind-numbingly horrific as that third quarter was, the final 2:34 of the second quarter set up what happened. If the Bulls could have just closed out the quarter strong, maintained their lead or even built it up a few points, I might be ooh-ing and ah-ing over Derrick Rose, who drilled four straight shots (including a triple) while scoring 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter.
Instead, I only see the little, disturbing details. Like the fact that Rose had only 4 assists and one measley free throw attempt. Like Taj Gibon’s 0-for-7 shooting night (he’s now 1-for-16 in the last two games). Like Joakim Noah’s 0-for-4 shooting from the line and his game-worst plus-minus score (-22). Like Luol Deng’s 6-for-17 night. Like the fact that Thibodeau was so desperate for a spark he put Scalabrine in for nine minutes…and Scal had a better plus-minus score (+6) than any of the starters.
Still, the Bulls played three really good quarters of basketball against a surging team that might be shaping into a championship contender. If not for a two-and-a-half minute meltdown at the end of the first half, Bulls fans might be celebrating a big win.
The loss feels crappy. But maybe — assuming the team can clean up some of the sloppy play that led to their third quarter collapse — it’s actually reason for hope.