Early in the season, the San Antonio Spurs battled a rash of injuries and saw much of the Western Conference pull ahead of them in the standings to create a hole from which they’re still recovering.
The Chicago Bulls are now on similar warning with two teams threatening to overtake them for the No. 2 spot in the East.
The healthy and streaking Spurs play the third date on a six-game homestand Sunday night against the depleted Bulls, who could use some offensive production from a makeshift backcourt.
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San Antonio (38-23) had plenty of scoring from all over the court in Friday’s 120-111 win over Denver and is now in position to win at least five straight for the second time this season.
The streak has featured 110.0 points per game, and it’s likely no coincidence that those four games match the longest consecutive run with the Spurs’ projected starting five of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter all starting.
Leonard and Parker have been especially productive. Leonard scored a game-high 25 points against the Nuggets and is averaging 21.3 points on 58.3 percent shooting on the streak, while Parker’s last two have produced 21.5 points on 62.1 percent shooting and caught the eye of his coach.
"Tony looks good," coach Gregg Popovich said. "As I said before the game, I think he is healthy. He is getting his rhythm back, which can help you get your confidence back. So, I think he is what we need to have."
Tom Thibodeau, whose team is battling Cleveland and Toronto for the East’s consolation prize behind Atlanta, can only dream of making such statements about his point guard.
Chicago (39-24) has been without starting guards Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and forward Taj Gibson. Rose has missed six games as he begins recovery from right knee surgery, while Butler has been out for three with an elbow injury, and the duo didn’t travel with the team for Friday’s 98-84 loss in Indiana. Gibson is dealing with an ankle injury that’s cost him four, though he’s said to be nearing a return.
The starting backcourt has featured Tony Snell and Aaron Brooks for the duration of Butler’s absence, a combination that’s produced an uninspiring shooting effort of 20 for 66 (30.3 percent).
A glimmer of relief came from Doug McDermott against the Pacers. The rookie small forward scored a personal-best 16 points on 8-of-17 shooting after going 0 for 9 over his previous five games.
"I knew it was coming," Joakim Noah told the team’s official website. "He’s too talented for it not to come. He’s finally getting an opportunity and the more he plays the better he is going to be. He has a chance to be a very good player in this league."
Despite his team’s 36.0 percent shooting mark against Indiana and a 28.5 percent 3-point rate over six games, Thibodeau was more concerned with the defensive end of the court in Chicago’s latest contest.
"We just couldn’t finish our defense as well as we could have," Thibodeau said.
Nevertheless, the Bulls haven’t lost consecutive games in more than a month, going 9-4 since dropping three straight from Jan. 29-Feb. 4, and preceded the loss to the Pacers with wins over Washington and Oklahoma City.
They’re also not terribly far removed from a 104-81 home win over the Spurs on Jan. 22, which came without starters Mike Dunleavy and Noah and marked their sixth win in 10 games in the series.
Pau Gasol had 12 points and 17 rebounds for his fourth straight double-double against San Antonio, while Brooks managed 15 points off the bench, but it was Rose (22 points), Butler (17) and Gibson (15) who did most of the offensive damage.
At the other end, Duncan has struggled in the last two meetings while averaging 5.0 points on 4-of-16 shooting.