SAN ANTONIO—The latest stop on the Bulls' at times magical mystery tour known as the annual circus trip had the look of earlier stops in Los Angeles and Denver—a winnable game in which they came up short.
Despite a game-high 23 points from Ben Gordon and 20 points and 12 rebounds from Drew Gooden, the Bulls once again faltered after three quarters and succumbed 98-88 to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night at the AT & T Center.
"We played well the first three quarters and ran out of gas," Del Negro said. "Their high screen roll affected us, and we settled on too many jump shots and got out of rhythm. But you have to give them credit for their defensive effort on some of those things. Our guys fought."
The Bulls, trying to carry over momentum from Monday's 101-100 buzzer-beating victory at Utah, held a 69-66 lead on Gooden lay-in before the Spurs assumed control late in the third quarter.
San Antonio reserve forward Ime Udoka tied it on a baseline three-pointer—his first shot of the night—and on the Spurs' next possession guard Manu Ginobili whipped a wraparound pass to Udoka at the same spot on the floor. Udoka's second three gave the Spurs the lead for good at 72-69 with three minutes to go in the third.
San Antonio took a 76-71 lead into the fourth when the Bulls delved into the ominous combination of missed shots and turnovers. The Bulls' only points in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter came on Luol Deng's reverse lay-in, while the Spurs were busy slashing down the lane for layups by Ginobili and rookie point guard George Hill.
Deng, playing his second game after missing the previous three with a sore left hamstring, scored 10 points in 26 minutes.
"I have to do a better job of getting Luol involved, especially early," Del Negro said.
The Spurs completed their difference-making 16-4 run before Gooden connected on a baseline jumper with five minutes to go, but that only cut the Spurs' cushion to 89-75 in a case of too little, too late.
"Their second team came out there and played harder than their first team," Gooden said. "We kind of stood on our heels when we saw Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili weren't there. We got too lackadaisical out there defensively, and Hill and Kurt Thomas killed us in that pick-and-roll."
Hill, the Spurs' first-round draft pick out of Indiana University- Purdue University-Indianapolis, had 19 points and 11 rebounds, winning the battle of first-round draft picks with top overall pick Derrick Rose, who was held to 10 points, six assists and six rebounds. Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points.
"It doesn't matter if you're a first-round pick, second-round pick or the last pick," Hill said. "You made it here, so you are here for a reason. I respect everyone. I like to step up to the challenge, though."
The Bulls began to unravel in the fourth when forward Andres Nocioni drew a technical for arguing a no-call at the other end as he drove the lane. The Spurs hit three free throws to start the quarter, stretching their lead to 79-71, and the Bulls couldn't recover.
"At key moments, we didn't make the right plays that we needed to," Gordon said. "We gave them what they wanted on offense, and we didn't come down and convert on the other end."
There were five lead changes in the opening moments of the second half following a 45-45 halftime tie.
The Spurs continually gave Gooden open looks, and he knocked down jumpers to keep the Bulls ahead until the waning moments of the third quarter.
But it wasn't enough.
"This game's like chess, especially when you go against coaches like Gregg Popovich," Gooden said. "He makes adjustments throughout the whole game, and we just have to counter that. As players, we have to be prepared and mentally tough enough to get it done offensively and defensively."