And admit it: Isn’t that pretty much what you expected? The Spurs are still really good — the Southwest Division-leading 25-13 record they brought with them to Chicago was proof enough of that — but, let’s face facts, they aren’t the same team that won four championships in nine years. They’re older, less talented (by which I am pointing an accusing finger at players four through 12 on the depth chart) and seemingly a slow, plodding step behind this season’s legit contenders: The Cavaliers, Lakers, Magic and maybe the Celtics (although Boston has the same general vulnerabilities as San Antonio, even down to the mildly unsettling similarities between Brian Scalabrine and Matt Bonner). But they remain one of those scary, can’t-count-’em-out teams, thanks to superior coaching and the veteran wiles possessed by their holy triumverate of Tim Duncan (18 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocked shots), Tony Parker (20 points, 8 assists) and Manu Ginobili (21 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals).
Make no mistake: Those three men still have as much raw skill as any other same-team trio in the league. But talent alone does not a dangerous player make. (For further reading, please refer to the collected works of Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, Pervis Ellison, et al.) It takes more than just being able to play the game. You have to know how to play it. And then, even more importantly, you have to know how to win.
See, Vince Lombardi was right: Winning is a habit. Do it long enough and it becomes second nature, like walking or making fun of Darko Milicic. For example, in my youth, I spent countless hours honing my skills at Super Mario Brothers. Not to brag, but I achieved a level of expertise at that game that bordered on supernatural. I could cruise through all eight levels without dying once. Most of the time, I would jump on, over or through the various enemies and obstacles a split-second before it was strictly necessary. Basically, I had conditioned myself to win…to the point where I could (and did) do it without even thinking.
That’s where the Spurs are at right now: Barring a crippling injury to Tim Duncan, the Spurs will continue to grind out 50-win seasons year after year out of sheer, boring habit, right up until age causes Duncan’s wheels to go spinning off into NBA oblivion. When the endgame rolls around, San Antonio just lets their win gene kick in and good things tend to happen, particularly against not-so-good teams.
Look, it’s not as though the Bulls were horrible. They overcame a 13-point deficit and an ugly shooting night by Derrick Rose (6-for-21) to take an 82-81 lead on Drew Gooden’s three-point play with 3:14 left. But here’s a summary of their last seven possessions: Missed jump shot by Andres Nocioni; missed layup by Derrick Rose; turnover by Nocioni (stolen by Bruce Bowen), missed layup by Rose; two free throws by Drew Gooden; three free throws by Nocioni; missed three-pointer by Ben Gordon. Not exactly what you would call “clutch numbers.” Particularly when you consider that Noc’s foul shots came off a foul by Parker in which the contact was, ahem, limited. Said Parker: “He got my thumb, that’s how close it was. The ref didn’t call it at first but then he (Nocioni) screamed.”
Of course, Nocioni — whose 17 points and 15 rebounds made him, by far, the best Bull on the court — was himself suckered into fouling Manu Ginobili on a three-point attempt with only seven seconds left on the game clock (and the Spurs leading by only three points). That, of course, followed Parker’s driving layup around Rose and a dagger three by Ginobili that put the Bullies behind the eight ball. That’s the Spurs for you: Grinding it out once again.
There was a smidge of controversy after the game, with Bulls players and coaches aiming a hairy eyeball at the officiating crew of Mark Lindsey, Rodney Mott, Scott Foster. It was felt by some that the home team might have deserved a few more whistles, particularly Rose, who missed seven layups, seven of which drew minor to significant contact. Yet Rose finished the game zero-for-zero from the charity stripe. Uhm…wow?
Said Rose: “[My teammates tell me] just fight through it. Arguing? I’m a rookie, I can’t say nothing. [The referees] look at me; they’ll probably curse me out. So I’ll just keep my mouth closed and next time try to drive harder.”
I guess you could say the refs were letting ’em play. How else would you explain the rather bizarre fact that the Bulls went from the 5:44 mark of the first quarter until two minutes into the fourth without a single free throw attempt? I mean, 38 minutes without a foul shot despite plenty of aggressive drives? Like Keanu Reeves might say: Whoa.
But despite the iffy officiating, Vinny Del Negro did his best possible Gregg Popovich impression: “We’ve just got to keep attacking the basket. We got into the penalty there (with four minutes left in the fourth quarter), and I talked to the guys in the huddle about being aggressive, getting to the basket, but we weren’t able to get the calls. You’ve got to fight through that stuff. Usually the aggressive team gets the calls.”
Usually? Maybe. When the team knows how to win, that is.