The season's midpoint has been reached. The Bulls are on pace for 36 victories.

Let's pause here for the excitement level to die down.

A middling season continued Saturday night at the United Center with another gut-wrenching affair, the Bulls falling 92-87 to the Spurs before a sellout crowd of 22,100.

The loss marked the ninth straight time since April 2007 the Bulls have failed with a chance to post a three-game winning streak, though with a gritty, if sloppy, effort.

Big plays from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili down the stretch, as well as some mental mistakes, doomed the Bulls. Now the second-half improvement must begin.

"If the guys compete and play like they have the last few, we'll get better," coach Vinny Del Negro said.

Down by as many as seven early in the fourth, the Bulls clawed back to take their first lead since midway through the third quarter on Drew Gooden's conventional three-point play with 3 minutes 13 seconds left.

Gooden, playing through a sore groin and ankle for the second straight game, finished with 11 points in 23 minutes.

Joakim Noah then blocked a Tim Duncan shot out of bounds with 2:52 remaining, and Duncan, whose 25th double-double featured 18 points and 14 rebounds, missed a running hook off the inbounds.

But Andres Nocioni and Derrick Rose each forced shots on the ensuing possession, and Parker scored on a spin move with 1:41 left to push the Spurs ahead for good 83-82.

Nocioni followed with a turnover, and Ginobili sank a backbreaking three-pointer at the other end with 64 seconds remaining.

Rose, who was 6 of 21, then missed another wild shot and Nocioni committed a pointless foul on Ginobili on the perimeter. Ginobili, who led the Spurs with 21 points, made both free throws with 36.8 seconds left.

After Gooden and Ginobili traded a pair of free throws, Nocioni suckered Parker into fouling him on a three-point attempt with 31 seconds left. Nocioni, who finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds, sank all three free throws to make it a one-possession game at 90-87.

But with the shot clock at less than one second, Nocioni returned the brain cramp, biting on a Ginobili fake and fouling his Argentine countryman on his three-pointer.

"It happened," Nocioni said. "And that's it."

Ginobili made 2 of 3 to ice it.

"They've played together for so long and have seen those moves, it's hard to believe it happened," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I'm sure it hurts now, but sometime in the future, they'll laugh about it."

The Bulls weren't laughing about attempting just 10 free throws, nine fewer than the Spurs. Rose attempted none despite his 21 shots.

"I'm used to it," Rose said. "I just have to get body contact and try to finish. But I'm a rookie. I can't say nothing. [Officials] will look at me and probably start cussing me out. I'll just keep my mouth closed and next time, try to drive harder."

Ben Gordon rebounded from back-to-back subpar games to hit his first five shots and lead the Bulls with 20 points.

"They executed down the stretch," Del Negro said. "And we didn't."

kcjohnson@tribune.com