SAN ANTONIO -- Gregg Popovich knew what was coming Wednesday night. Derrick Rose was going to race up and down the floor, and get plenty of points. Rose was going to try to push the tempo of the game and take over whenever he could. Popovich was fine with all that.
He just wanted to make Rose work for everything he got. The coach, who has four NBA titles to his name, tried to play coy about his plan of attack before the action began, but his methodology was pretty evident to anyone watching:
Make somebody else besides Rose be the difference-maker.
"It's a game plan; I don't know where it begins," Popovich quipped. "We know who the most important guy to try to stop is. And we also know we're not going to stop him. But we're going to try and make him work and see if we can get him to work hard to get the ball to other people. We're going to try and do what we can to limit him. But he's a tough nut."
For three quarters, Popovich's plan was working quite well. Rose had 23 points, but aside from C.J. Watson and to a lesser extent Joakim Noah, the Bulls could not find any consistent offense. Carlos Boozer was ineffective. Luol Deng couldn't find his shot. And Rip Hamilton looked exactly like a player usually looks when he's missed a month of action because of injuries: rusty.
Everything changed in the final 12 minutes. After playing terribly through three quarters, Ronnie Brewer found his jumper and poured in eight points. Kyle Korver, who's been struggling with his shot for a few weeks now, knocked down a critical 3-pointer. Watson and Taj Gibson contributed solid minutes and chipped in five points. And Deng, who went into the fourth quarter shooting 1-for-6 from the field, knocked down two huge shots, including a back-breaking 3-pointer with just 39.6 seconds left that gave the Bulls a comfortable six-point lead.
Of course, Rose had six huge points of his own and helped create the space for several of his teammates' big shots. But the Bulls proved Wednesday that they had enough other parts to knock off a veteran-laden Spurs squad that badly wanted a win.
"This is a team game," Noah said, bristling at the notion that the Bulls would simply get out of the way in the end and allow Rose to take over. "Derrick is special and we know that, but get out of the way? Guys are setting screens for him, guys are moving. I think everybody has a role and I think everybody plays it pretty well on this team."
That's one of the reasons the Bulls' locker room was happier than usual late Wednesday night. They know they are going to need Rose to take over at various points during the season, but other pieces came through down the stretch to help him pull out the win.
"The bench came in and gave us the energy," Rose said. "I told you the other day that sometimes our bench wins games for us, and tonight is the example for that."
The broader example for the Bulls, and the one that should give them even more confidence down the line, isn't just that they were able to give Rose the help he needed down the stretch. They were able to do it in a hostile environment against a team that has gotten to the championship level to which they're trying to ascend.
"They're a tough team," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Spurs. "When you're on the road, you have to play that way in every game, but in particular on the road, it's just you and your teammates and your coaches. That's it. You have to have resiliency. You have to have toughness. Physical toughness, mental toughness, courage, you need all those things. And you need to persevere when things aren't going your way to keep marching forward. And that's what our guys did."
The Bulls have struggled on the road against teams with winning records. Obviously, that doesn't make them that much different from most NBA teams, but games such as Wednesday's have been their kryptonite early in the season. They caught a break with the low level of competition they've been playing through a majority of the schedule. The second half is going to bring much tougher foes.
"Good teams win ugly sometimes," Hamilton said. "I think that sometimes your shot's not going to fall. Sometimes things aren't going to go your way, but you figure out a way to win. And the last two nights was definitely huge and big. That's big from a championship team-wise because your shot's not going to fall every night. When you do good things on the defensive end, you always give yourself a chance."
That's what Rose and the Bulls did Wednesday night, and that's why they were so happy when it was over. Thibodeau said before the game that he didn't believe in statement games, but the Bulls made one anyway.
"It means that we have a lot of confidence in ourselves," Rose said of the win. "We believe. I know Coach is extremely happy with us. We're extremely happy with ourselves playing this team on a back-to-back, coming here."
Then as if to prove his point, Rose asked a question of the assembled media in the midst of his answer.
"How many games did they lose here this year?"
When a reporter responded that this was just the second time the Spurs had lost all season at home, Rose nodded with confidence.
"Exactly," he said. "Playing a team here where they're comfortable playing here. Their crowd is so tough; hopefully we can take this and run with it."