First off: #OperationTank is no more. The Bulls have now won 5 of 7, which despite the hole they dug themselves and the endless amount of injuries they suffered, has them right back in the sixth seed in the East. After their thrashing at the hands of the Rockets, I noted the Bulls had a good chance to tank, especially with Brooklyn, Cleveland and New York all showing signs of life. Since then, Brooklyn lost Brook Lopez for the year, Cleveland found itself playing without an injured Kyrie Irving and a suspended Andrew Bynum, and the Knicks continued to do whatever it is that the Knicks do. In addition, the upstart Bobcats have dropped five games in a row. Barring another crazy cavalcade of injuries, not only will the Bulls make the playoffs, they may earn homecourt in the first round.
Now to the game, which, aside from the victory over Miami, was probably the most enjoyable Bulls game since that fateful night in Portland. Instead of the usual grind-it-out slugfest, Chicago ended up in a free-flowing up and down game with the Hawks. Now, a lot of that was due to turnovers and sloppy passes, but there was also some good ball movement and the Bulls did a good job getting out in transition. Chicago got out to a small lead and maintained it throughout the first half, but Atlanta cut it to two after finding (who else?) Kyle Korver wide open in the corner for three. However, Luol Deng countered by hitting the halfcourt shot seen above and the Bulls led by five at the break. After a rather aesthetically brutal third quarter, Chicago held on by the hair on their chinny chin chin, as the game often felt in doubt but they persevered, largely thanks to some huge plays by Taj Gibson, who started in Carlos Boozer’s absence. D.J. Augustin, who had yet another good game, fed Taj at just the right time on a two-on-one break to set up a monster dunk. Gibson got another slam thanks to a nice lob pass from Joakim Noah, who delivered another strong all-around game. On the defensive end, Gibson intercepted an Atlanta lob and stonewalled Jeff Teague on a crunch-time possession despite being isolated alone on the wing with him.
This game had so many more bright spots that going to bullet form feels appropriate:
-As noted in the game preview, with Taj already in the game having started, Tom Thibodeau did indeed go small to compensate for his bench minutes. In the second quarter Deng played power forward and in the fourth, Chicago deployed all three of their wings other than Deng, as Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell shared the floor. One game is obviously small sample size theater, but Taj and small lineups are much more appealing than Boozer and Taj lineups. While that’s unlikely this year, it is a nice preview of what might be in store for next season.
-Speaking of Dunleavy, he continues to pay dividends and make the more patient Bulls fans look smart. Many of us noted he would need time to get integrated, as new additions in the past like Marco Belinelli have needed a similar adjustment time. While the amount of midrange jumpers Dunleavy takes can be a little irksome, his 11 fourth points and 20 overall were huge tonight.
-Even the more maligned members of the team made big contributions tonight. Kirk Hinrich, more animated than usual, actually hit a couple shots, and despite leaving for a while with an injury, returned and played some pretty solid defense. Also, Nazr Mohammed in an eight minute first half stint delivered five points, four rebounds, an assist and a nice block on a midrange Jeff Teague baseline fadeaway. That might raise a couple questioning eyebrows, but Thibs wouldn’t let him relieve Noah for over eight minutes if he hadn’t played well.
-Six Bulls scored in double figures, while only four Hawks did so, and their two leading scorers, Teague and Paul Millsap who each tallied 16 points, were just 12-34 from the floor and 0-7 from three. Also, Korver was just 2-7 from behind the line.
-Chicago sometimes seems allergic to the three point line, and while they were only 1-8 in the second half, they went 5-9 in the first on 1-2 each from Butler, Hinrich, Dunleavy and Augustin, along with the halfcourt heave by Deng. Progress!
-It looked like Butler was going to be subjected to playing the entire second half, but Thibodeau gave him a rest with about seven minutes left and didn’t put him back in until a little less than two minutes remained. Progress!
-As David Vertsberger (@_verts), noted on Twitter, for the first time since 2009, Luol Deng played less than 30 minutes in back-to-back games. YES WE CAN!
-Again, the Bulls have won 5 of 7, and after a couple days to recover for a home tilt against the shockingly-good Suns, their upcoming opponents: Bucks, Bobcats, Wizards, Magic, Wizards, Sixers, Lakers, Cavs, Clippers without Chris Paul, Bobcats, Wolves before a six game Western road trip. If the Bulls are to make a legitimate playoff push, they couldn’t ask for a better slate for the rest of the month.