Wherever they have played for the last few weeks the Spurs have been asked to answer the same question, over and over: How have you been able to win every game on the road when you’ve already lost four of your first five games at home?
They finally fell in a game played somewhere other than the AT&T Center, beaten by the Chicago Bulls at United Center on Thursday, 95-91. Interrogators who have been pestering them to explain their domination in road games will have to find new questions.
That is small consolation for a team that had a chance to match the all-time best road start in NBA history, Golden State’s 14-0 road run that helped them on their way to an all-time best 73-9 record last season.
Instead, the Spurs will have to satisfy themselves with matching the 1969-70 New York Knicks for the second-best road start in league history.
The first question the Spurs must answer after their first road loss of the season: Why weren’t they focused and ready for Thursday’s historic mission, as their coach suggested afterward.
Asked during a postgame interview televised live by the TNT-TV network that aired the game if he bore any responsibility for his players’ lack of focus, Gregg Popovich snapped at his inquisitor.
“I don’t remember playing tonight,” Popovich said. “I didn’t play. Guys get a lot of money to be ready to play. No Knute Rockne speeches. It’s your job. If you’re a plumber and you don’t do your job you don’t get any work. I don’t think the plumber needs a pep talk. If a doctor botches operations, he’s not a doctor any more. If you’re a basketball player, you come ready. It’s called maturity. It’s your job.”
The Spurs coach never singles out individual players, but starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs’ No. 2 scorer this season, epitomized the lack of preparedness that rankled Popovich. He missed 10-of-15 shots and scored only 10 points. In his past two games, Aldridge has scored only 16 points.
There is empirical data to back Popovich’s assertion. His players made only 15-of-49 shots in the first half; only 1-of-11 from 3-point range. They got to the foul line only once in the half, while the Bulls shot 8 free throws, typically a measure of the relative aggression of the combatants.
The result was the least productive half of the season for the Spurs, 32 points. That left them with a 13-point deficit, and if any loss can be encapsulated up by one play, this one might best be summed up the blown dunk by Spurs forward Jonathan Simmons with just under 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter.
At that point, the Spurs had rallied from a seven-point first-quarter deficit to cut Chicago’s lead to 21-19 when Simmons picked off a Bulls pass and headed on a solo drive to the basket. The second-year pro from University of Houston tried a two-handed slam, adding a bit of dunk contest panache. Instead of a made-for-TNT-TV moment, his spectacular miss is certain to go straight to TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal’s popular “Shaqtin’ A Fool” feature.
The Spurs woes carried into the third period, and when Bulls small forward Jimmy Butler made two free throws, with six minutes left in the quarter, Chicago led by 18, 65-47.
Kawhi Leonard, David Lee and Patty Mills heated up for the Spurs in the final six minutes of the third. By quarter’s end, they had worked their way back into the game, cutting Chicago’s lead to nine points, 72-63. They got as close as four points, 88-84, with 3:20 left in the game. They missed 5-0f-7 shots until Danny Green hit a long 3-point shot at the buzzer, a meaningless basket that made the outcome seem closer than it truly was.
The Spurs will be home for their next two games, beginning with Saturday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets at AT&T Center. If past performance is any guide, they will respond to Popovich’s postgame churl with inspired play, right from the opening tip.