A few Bulls fans got irritated with me for something I wrote in a recent ESPN 5-on-5. One fan even suggested I shouldn’t even be covering the Bulls after what I wrote.
“On a scale from 0 to 100, what are the Hawks’ chances?”
My partial answer:
“My gut says 50 because the Hawks are such a 50-50 team: with so much potential but so enigmatic.”
This answer wasn’t inspired by a lack of faith in the Bulls. It was an acknowledgement that, while flawed, this particular Hawks team can beat any given team on any given night. Atlanta is an outside shooting team that, if hot, can be very dangerous.
Well, they were hot last night, and they stole homecourt advantage from the Bulls.
Joe Johnson left third degree burns all over anybody who dared guard him. Johnson finished with 34 points on 12-for-18 shooting, going 5-for-5 from downtown and 5-for-5 from the free throw line. Former Bull Jamal Crawford added 22 points on 8-for-16 from the field, 2-for-4 from beyond he arc and 4-for-4 from the foul line.
As a team, the Hawks went 14-for-21 at the rim (66 percent). They went 7-for-13 from three-point range (54 percent) and converted 26 of their 57 jumpers overall (46 percent). Atlanta finished with an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 55.8 percent and an Offensive Efficiency of 115.7.
Against the league’s best defensive team.
Outside of the defense, Chicago’s most significant advantage as a team — offensive rebounding — was negated as the teams finished almost dead even in Offensive Rebound Percentage and second-chance points: Bulls 25.6 percent and 12, Hawks 25.0 percent and 11.
And, despite the presence of Derrick Rose, Atlanta finished with a higher Free Throw Rate (25.6) than Chicago (19.3).
Or maybe I should say because of Rose. You may want to steady yourself before reading Derrick’s shooting line: 11-for-27 from the field, 2-for-7 from downtown, 0-for-0 from the free throw line. He began the game 0-for-7.
Rose — who, according to a source, will be named MVP today — had an otherwise strong game (24 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a blocked shot). But any worries about the health of the ankle he sprained against the Pacers in round one were totally justified. Derrick couldn’t explode into defenders to draw the contact necessary to earn a whistle. And, to make matters worse, he further tweaked the ankle stepping on Crawford’s foot with only six seconds left and the game already decided.
Way too many jumpers. Not nearly enough drives.
Said Rose: “I don’t know why I didn’t keep attacking the basket.”
It could have been, and probably was, the ankle. Of course, Atlanta had a nice game plan, too. They — as so many teams before them — clogged the paint and dared the Bulls to make outside shots. Chicago was decent from beyond the arc (8-for-18) but went a miserable 4-for-18 (22.3 percent) from 16-23 feet. Almost as bad was the fact that the Bulls missed 15 of their 30 attempts at the rim. Rose missed five of his nine bunnies.
Still, this wasn’t a failure by Rose or the offense, not really. The Bulls came up critically short in the intensity category, especially on defense. During the regular season, this team challenged every single shot. Last night, the Hawks got pretty much any shot they wanted. During the regular season, Chicago’s defense got stronger as the game went along. Last night, Atlanta scored 31 points in the fourth quarter.
Said Bulls coach and NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau: “The intensity wasn’t right. The start of the game was poor in terms of ball direction, in terms of challenging shots, in terms of showing help. There wasn’t one aspect of the defense that was good. They’re too good of a team to play like that.”
It was a stunning performance. Or non-performance, depending on your outlook. In the opening round, the Bulls were clearly caught off guard by the intensity and tenacity displayed by the Pacers. Through the first four games anyway. By Game 5, though, the team was finally ready for it. The players had taken it…now they were ready to dish it out. Which, I thought at the time, seemed like a pretty good sign for round two.
Apparently, I was way off in that assessment. In the first quarter, the Bulls played far too relaxed, like they were waiting for the game to come to them. Meanwhile, the Hawks were trying to take the game by the throat. They began the game with a 9-0 run and led 28-18 after 12 minutes.
In the fourth quarter, when Atlanta built a solid (but not insurmountable) lead, players started hanging their heads and looking beaten.
Okay, maybe it was more frustration than defeat, but it sure wasn’t the “never say die” team that won 62 games during the regular season. And the fact that Rose couldn’t dominate the action late in the game seemed to take the wind out of his teammates sails.
Said Joakim Noah: “It’s tough when your best player is limping off the court with an injury that you know he’s had before. It’s tough, but right now, we have a game on Wednesday in less than 48 hours.”
That’s right, Jo, you guys do have a game in less than 48 hours. And you need to get your stuff together. Of course, I have to keep reminding myself that this is a young team that hasn’t been tested in the playoffs yet. No amount of film study or preparation in practice can substitute for experience. The Hawks aren’t as good as the Bulls…but they’ve been through this together. The Bulls haven’t.
Hopefully, the Bulls understand what’s going on and — more importantly — what’s at stake. The Atlanta players aren’t going to roll over and die because Chicago is a better team on paper. The Magic learned that lesson and will spend the summer fixating on it. The biggest adjustment the Bulls have to make is in their hearts. And they’d better do it fast if they want to avoid Orlando’s fate.