The Bulls worked all the way back from a 20-point deficit.
And then their lead vanished into the night.
The result was a frustrating 119-100 loss Sunday to the Spurs, the Bulls’ ninth loss in 12 games.
This one was particularly demoralizing considering the circumstances. LaMarcus Aldridge hit his first 11 from the field as the Spurs opened a 30-10 lead.
“I didn’t see this coming,” said Aldridge, originally drafted second overall by the Bulls in 2006 and traded to the Trail Blazers on draft day. “Some days you wake up with that extra energy, that extra juice. That wasn’t today. I was up at 9 a.m. doing Christmas with the family. I was scared I wouldn’t have juice.”
The Bulls’ defensive game plan called for allowing long two-pointers, a strategy that worked two weeks ago at the United Center. The Bulls won that game 95-91 as Aldridge shot 5-for-15.
But this was a different story as Aldridge made 15 of 20 to score a season-high 33 points.
The Spurs shot 14-for-17 in the first quarter, jumping to leads of 17-4 and 28-8.
“It seems like every shot they threw up, they made,” said Rajon Rondo, who was limited to six points and two assists. “That was a hell of a storm we went through. But our bench did a great job lifting us up.”
Nikola Mirotic hit 3 of 6 from 3-point range and had two more bounce in and out. That was a good sign. So was the fact the Bulls didn’t lie down to a superior team with much of America watching.
“I’m really proud with how we fought back,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I don’t think we ever hung our heads. To be able to battle back in this building against a team of that caliber is a positive sign, a step in the right direction. Our fight and our spirit were where they needed to be.”
The Bulls got baskets from every player on the floor as they rallied to take a 70-67 lead on a Jimmy Butler 3-pointer with about five minutes to play in the third quarter.
It did not last long.
The Spurs (25-6) closed the quarter with a 20-4 avalanche, getting a major lift from Dewayne Dedmon, of all people. He dunked twice in a row, the second on a gorgeous alley-oop feed from Patty Mills.
The Bulls (14-16) turned it over three straight times — an errant Rondo pass, a Robin Lopez offensive foul and an off-line Lopez pass — and never recovered. The dagger came on a Manu Ginobili 3-pointer that rattled around and in.
Kawhi Leonard posted another MVP-caliber performance, finishing with 25 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Dwyane Wade’s 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting led the Bulls, who fell to 13-8 in Christmas games.
“It was a frustrating game,” he said. “We did a great job of fighting back.”
The Bulls bench, composed of younger players, helped rally the team late in the first quarter. But they still got stick with the loss.
“The best teacher is experience, and they’re experiencing it now,” Wade said. “The only thing you can hope for is that at some point in the season, moments like this will help the team grow.
“You have to learn how to win together, and some of that comes through defeat.”