Margin of error too thin for Bulls

SAN ANTONIO -- Pau Gasol summed up the Chicago Bulls' 116-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs well.

"If you turn the ball over 24 times, I think, against a very good team like they are, I don't think there's a way you can win it," he said.

The Bulls turned the ball over only 20 times Sunday, but it's easy to understand why Gasol mixed up the numbers. They didn't value possessions the way they should have, and they didn't execute the way they needed to against a championship team playing its best basketball of the season.

The reality for the Bulls, as they get set to finish a brutal four-games-in-five-nights stretch against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday at the United Center, is that games such as Sunday's are what should be expected from a team missing Derrick Rose (knee), Jimmy Butler (elbow) and Taj Gibson (ankle).

Wins over the Washington Wizards and Oklahoma City Thunder last week were the exception for a team missing three of its best players.

Aside from the fact that the Bulls are missing offensive and defensive firepower, the byproduct of injuries to key stars is little-used bench players playing in lineups they haven't been in all season.

"We've got some new combinations where guys are going to have to get used to things pretty quickly," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.

That's easier said than done with only 18 regular-season games left. Thibodeau and his players were happy with the way they fought down the stretch and were proud they kept playing hard as a group.

They aren't using the latest injuries as an excuse, but effort and determination can carry a team only so far. The Bulls are saying all the right things, and the game would have been closer had they not made so many mental errors, but to expect this group to keep finding ways to win against high-level opponents is a tough ask -- and even more difficult down the stretch of a long NBA season.

"We have to play tougher defensively," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "When things aren't going your way, we just got to find a way to get stops. We couldn't get stops at all tonight."

Like Gasol, Noah has a point. The Bulls have struggled all season to find a consistent defensive rhythm. They haven't played with the intensity that has defined them over the past five years. Noah said he needs to do a better job of starting the game with more energy because he knows his teammates feed off his rush.

The Bulls know they have to play better and clean up their mistakes, but at the same time, is it really fair to expect them to beat a team such as San Antonio without Rose, Butler or Gibson?

Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have prided themselves on winning games they aren't supposed to win. But sometimes the loss of too much talent is too big to overcome. The margin of error is too small.

"Very small," Gasol said. "Very small. Very small. We kept fighting. I think we battled throughout the game, trying to give ourselves a chance and put ourselves in a favorable position, and we made our runs. But a couple possessions, a couple mistakes, [the Spurs] make you pay."