The Chicago Bulls defense crumbled Friday in San Antonio, extending a theme of slipshod security in a 131-122 loss to the Spurs — their seventh in 10 games.
A spotlight has been fixated on the Bulls defense ever since injuries sidelined Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, the team’s defensive specialists who average nearly three combined steals per game. The Bulls have held only one team under 100 points since the pair went out.
But coach Billy Donovan refused to place the blame for Friday’s loss — which cut short the relief of a short-lived two-game winning streak this week — on the absences of Caruso and Ball.
“When you’re scoring 122 points, you’ve got to be able to play good enough defense to be able to win,” Donovan said.
The Bulls carried a six-point lead into the second half, but that edge quickly dwindled as the Spurs bombarded them with pick-and-roll action. The play became the backbone of the second half, and the Bulls answer.
Every defensive switch off a pick seemed to end in a mismatch that favored the Spurs. Nikola Vucevic and his fellow big men scrambled to keep up with speedy guards such as Dejounte Murray. The Spurs peppered the Bulls with 43.2% 3-point shooting, finishing with 16 baskets from behind the arc. But the size differential worked in the opposite direction, allowing center Jakob Poeltl to bash smaller guards in the paint for 21 points.
The Spurs offense was fueled by breakneck ball movement, and they ended the game with 35 assists on 50 made shots. Murray finished with 29 points and was one of seven Spurs to make a 3-pointer on the night.
“We had a really hard time controlling the ball,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think that we closed very well in terms of ball containment, and that’s when 3s come.”
The Spurs quickly built a 12-point lead in the third quarter, holding the double-digit advantage through the final buzzer despite a desperate Bulls comeback attempt.
Five Bulls finished in double figures — DeMar DeRozan (32 points), Zach LaVine (30), Vucevic (18), Coby White (18) and Ayo Dosunmu (10).
DeRozan, who was named an All-Star Game starter Thursday, led the Bulls in his first return to San Antonio since the Spurs traded him in August. The celebratory night started with a highlight video on the AT&T Center big screen to thank DeRozan for his impact during three seasons with the franchise.
The game marked DeRozan’s 13th 30-plus-point scoring performance of the season and LaVine’s 12th. Vucevic showed renewed vigor in the paint but faded in the second half.
White came into the game needing a jolt of confidence. After offering a much-needed offensive boost while LaVine and Ball were injured, White entered Friday having gone 4-for-29 from 3-point range in the last five games. But it didn’t seem to dent White’s shot selection — the guard pulled up from the AT&T logo at midcourt to loft his first shot of the game, sinking his first three long-range attempts and finishing with 18 points off the bench.
White hit his final 3-pointer to cut the Spurs’ lead to three points in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t enough to make up for the lackluster defense, which struggled to keep pace with the Spurs long enough to mount a comeback.
When the Bulls head home to Chicago to host the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, they’ll bring a singular focus from San Antonio — returning to the defense-first identity that defined the start of their season.
“We’ve got to be better defensively,” DeRozan said. “We’ve got to rely on that and not just try to outscore a team. We scored 122 points. That’s more than enough points to win and we can’t give up 131 points. That’s just unacceptable.”