That’s what many Bulls fans had to be thinking when Chicago fell behind 29-16 after the first quarter of last night’s home game against the Hawks. It was eerily reminiscent of the second quarter of the infamous “Apocalypse in Atlanta” back on December 9th, during which the Bulls got outscored 34-21 en route to an embarrassing 118-83 smackdown.
And even when Chicago cut Atlanta’s lead to single digits in the second quarter, the contest appeared to be one of those maddening hump games — where a team comes back from a large deficit but can’t quite “get over the hump” to take the lead — right up until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
But as it turns out, this game was an extension of a pretty good week in the Windy City, which included a respectable loss to the Lakers and comeback win over the Knicks. Win or lose, the Bulls have been playing with an intensity and determination that have seemingly been missing the past month or so.
The most disheartening aspect of Chicago’s recent rough patch — 11 losses in 13 games, many of which were hapless blowouts — was the sense that the Bulls weren’t putting forth their best effort, that maybe they were giving up on themselves or even quitting on coach Vinny Del Negro. Their recent performances have dispelled that notion — at least for the time being — and serve as a reminder that this is a young team that has been dealing with injuries, an identity shift, a brutal schdule and the weight of expectations that might have been a little unrealistic after their playoff performance against the Celtics last spring.
At any rate, it’s worth noting that the Hawks (19-7) are one of the league’s better teams with one of the league’s better players (Joe Johnson, who went off for a season-high 40 points on 16-for-32 shooting). According to John Hollinger, Atlanta currently ranks 2nd in Offensive Efficiency and 10th in Defensive Efficiency. Yet the Bulls held the Hawks to 98 points (which included an overtime session) on 41 percent shooting. On the other end, Chicago scored 100+ for only the third time this season (although again that included overtime) while hitting 48 percent of their field goals.
That’s a really strong effort for this team. And more than that, they showed real, honest-to-goodness mental toughness by not falling behind and then simply succumbing to what is — by the numbers — a superior team.
Other good signs for the Bulls: they won the rebounding battle (46-41), outscored the Hawks 44-36 in the paint, limited their miscues (only 13 turnovers through five quarters), and took full advantage of Atlanta’s mistakes (+10 in points off turnovers).
And, of course, they came away with the win. Don’t you get the feeling that, if the Bulls give this kind of effort every single game, they could keep coming away with wins? Especially in light of their upcoming schedule: versus Sacramento (12-14), at New York (9-17), versus New Orleans (12-13), versus Indiana (9-16) and at Detroit (11-15).
This might be time for them to make a move…because they play 10 of 15 games on the road in January.
Player of the Game:
I have hand this award directly to Derrick Rose, who needed a cortisone shot for pain in his right rib cage but managed to score a career-high 32 points (14-for-24) to go along with 4 rebounds and a co-game-high 6 assists. More importantly, he had a hand in Chicago’s final three baskets in regulation by knocking down an eight-footer (1:53), finding Kirk Hinrich for a layup (0:58) and then hitting a driving layup of his own (0:35). That final bucket tied the game.
It was the same story in overtime. The Bulls scored four times, and Rose was involved in each one: he drilled a 21-footer (4:13), found John Salmons for a rare three-pointer (2:13), hit layup (0:59) and knocked down two free throws (0:10).
(P.S. In light of the overwhelming evidence in his favor, I’m forgiving him for shanking those two freebies with two seconds left in overtime. Although if Johnson had hit that triple at the buzzer…)
Play of the Game Runner-Up:
Luol Deng was fantastic with 21 points (8-for-17), a co-game-high 12 boards, a co-game-high 6 assists, a co-team-high 2 blocked shots, and a steal. His plus-minus score (+11) was a game-high. Note also that Deng assisted on both of Rose’s field goals in overtime.
I really hope that Bulls fans realize how well Luol has been playing this season. I think it’s gotten lost in all the pain of losing, but he has very quietly been playing some of the best basketball of his career. I’m going to devote a full post to this very soon, but check out his game log. He’s scored 20+ points in four of the last five games, and nine of the last 14 overall. Now check out his season stats, including the advanced stuff. Compare what he’s doing right now versus what he did in his now-mythical 2006-07 season.
Luol Deng is back. More on this soon.
The TrueHoop Network:
Bret LaGree of Hoopinion: “If Friday night’s win demonstrated the vast potential of this team, last night’s loss demonstrated the team’s long term uncertainties. Because Joe Johnson can’t beat opponents off the dribble for easy buckets or trips to the free throw line, even on a great shooting night, one in which he scores 40 points, he needs 36 possessions to get those points, not that much better a rate than the 58 points on 56 possessions his teammates managed on a night where each of Smith, Crawford, and Bibby laid offensive eggs. Bibby and Crawford showed how little they contribute when they aren’t making shots. There is a reasonable argument for not building a team around Josh Smith even if he might be the team’s best player. Jeff Teague is talented, but just a rookie, and, though the bench is improved, the Hawks carry just 13 players, three of whom have given no indication they can contribute.”