When Pau Gasol entered the United Center Thursday night, he walked past the visitors locker room and headed toward the Bulls’ until realizing his mistake and turning around.
Talk about foreshadowing.
On a night the Spurs could have tied the NBA record last season’s Warriors set in opening the season 14-0 on the road, they played like they didn’t know where they were going until a spirited fourth-quarter rally fell short.
The Bulls took full advantage of the Spurs’ 40.2 percent shooting, snapping their three-game skid with a 95-91 victory behind Dwyane Wade’s 20 points and Rajon Rondo falling one assist shy of his second triple-double this season with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“We know we can play with the best and lose with the worst,” Rondo said.
That’s a nod to victories over the Cavaliers and Spurs and the poor recent stretch, which included a blowout loss to the Mavericks in Dallas. But on Thursday, the Bulls were the aggressors throughout, stifling the Spurs with an aggressive defense and enjoying a 27-5 edge in free-throw attempts.
That’s just the third time in franchise history a Bulls’ opponent shot five free throws or less.
“I have to give credit to our coaches,” Rondo said. “We were prepared with the scouting report. It told us some key things we needed to do to beat San Antonio. That’s what we did. We finally listened to the scouting report. Last couple of games, we’ve made game-plan decision mistakes. This time, it was a big emphasis to follow the game plan and continue to stay solid with game-plan discipline.”
Doug McDermott, in his first action since Nov. 12 after missing 11 games with his second concussion of the season, scored eight points in 26 minutes. He drew a foul against Tony Parker on a 3-point attempt with 3 minutes, 5 seconds left, sinking all three free throws.
“I felt great,” McDermott said. “My cardio felt good. I was a little rusty with my rhythm. I turned it over a few too many times. But I think that will come. Overall, I didn’t feel any issues symptom-wise.”
That’s the kind of outside threat and bench scoring the Bulls have been lacking. Cristiano Felicio, again ahead of Bobby Portis in the rotation, added a season-high nine points.
“The big fella, Cris, was excellent,” Rondo said.
Jimmy Butler’s career-long streak of 15 straight games with 20 or more points ended when he didn’t score until the 6:54 mark of the third and finished with 13 points on 4-for-14 shooting. He joined Michael Jordan and Bob Love as the only players in franchise history with a scoring streak of at least that length.
All five Bulls’ starters reached double figures as the Bulls never trailed and led by as many as 18 before some nervous moments down the stretch.
Gasol, who for the second time in three summers took less money to choose his employer, finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and was feted with a brief video tribute welcoming him back.
Just as the Bulls were the beneficiary over the Lakers in 2014, the Spurs trumped Tom Thibodeau’s rebuilding Timberwolves this offseason. Gasol declined his player option on the final season of his three-year, $22 million deal as much because he no longer considered the Bulls title contenders as the record spike in the salary cap made his already-cap-friendly deal even more so.
Last season’s wearying slog through a non-playoff campaign made it clear that the main reason Gasol came to Chicago — challenging for a title, trumping even his beloved season tickets to the Lyric Opera — no longer applied.
“Last year was difficult,” Gasol said. “We had a coaching change and that’s never an easy transition. But I did enjoy my time here.”
That’s a nod to the injuries and locker-room issues that plagued the Bulls last season after Fred Hoiberg replaced Thibodeau. So Gasol moved on, signing a two-year, $31.6 million deal with the Spurs.
“He has been around long enough that everybody knows what he does for a team,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s just basketball, so it’s not very difficult for him.”
Lately, basketball has proved more challenging for the Bulls, whose early good vibes have been offset by poor bench production, limited 3-point shooting and a one-game suspension for Rondo for throwing a towel at and exchanging words with associate head coach Jim Boylen.
Boylen used to work for Popovich in San Antonio. Asked pregame if he ever would take a chance on a great player with a poor attitude, Popovich fired off a one-liner.
“As long as he promised ahead of time not to throw a towel at me,” he said.
There were no such drama-filled moments on Thursday, just plenty of defense — and then some.