Bulls and Hawks at the OK Three-Point Corral


Dec 28

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

I saw this Bulls-Hawks game before, this 129-117 Atlanta win that made me feel like Reagan was president, Billy Martin was fired again, Harrison Ford really looked like he could get away from a tumbling boulder, I was rockin’ to Kool and the Gang—OK, maybe not that—and Bernard King, World B. Free and Purvis Short were holding off Reggie Theus, Ricky Sobers and Larry Kenon.

Defense! You’ve got to be kidding. We don’t need no stinkin’ defense here.

Back then, much like Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulls barely missed anything, including the guys they were supposed to be guarding. That night in Golden State in December of 1981 the Bulls shot a team record 70.5 percent. And lost!

Against the Hawks Saturday, the Bulls shot just 54.4 percent, but were still at about 65 percent for the game midway through the fourth quarter before missing six of eight as the Hawks pulled away and won behind a season high 41 points for Joe Johnson.

And the Hawks backcourt still couldn’t outscore the Bulls’ with Ben Gordon getting 33 and Derrick Rose a career high 27.

“It’s frustrating to not be able to get enough stops,” Rose said. “We played so well offensively tonight, but we just couldn’t get it going on the defensive end. This is the NBA, so you’re going to have to play well on both ends if you’re going to be successful. Their size is definitely a problem, but we can’t make excuses. We just have to play through that and find a way to get the job done. Our biggest problem tonight is that we didn’t communicate, and that’s key on defense if you expect to get stops. We weren’t really talking much out there, and we’re going to have to get better at that.”

Yes, all the talk about the game from the Bulls, now 13-17 with their seventh straight road loss, was about the lack of defensive play.

“We didn’t do a good job of stopping the ball or communicating,” said Andres Nocioni. “We’re going to have to practice giving more effort on defense if we’re going to have success this season. The Hawks are a good team, and you can’t slack defensively if you hope to have a chance at beating them.”

But I didn’t exactly see it that way. I thought the Bulls played about as well as they can now. Not necessarily because Drew Gooden and Luol Deng are out with ankle injuries and Kirk Hinrich still is several weeks from returning from a broken thumb. And not necessarily because there appears no consistent defensive philosophy of play regarding where to funnel guys or how to help and recover. Or because there is and no one can play it.

Bulls fans have to face reality: This is not a team currently built to play defense. They have virtually no inside defensive presence, especially with Gooden out, and he’s hardly been a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year before. And because their perimeter starters, Rose and Gordon, both are  not good defenders, Rose likely because of inexperience and Gordon generally being overmatched in size no matter who he plays.

The Hawks took special advantage of Gordon Friday even as Gordon was smoking to open the game with 15 points in the first quarter. I might have kept him in to open the second quarter given how hot he was, though he did play 41 minutes and has to come out some time. I generally prefer to ride shooters until they come up dry. Gordon’s shots weren’t even grazing the rim early, and it took him a bit of time to get it going again when he returned.

The Hawks have prided themselves on defense in their surprising 19-10 start, but that’s how good the Bulls are when they are hot from the perimeter.

Still, the Hawks picked on Gordon as much as they could, sending Johnson at him to open the game as Johnson and Gordon had one of those first quarter shootouts reminiscent of the Jordan-Dominique Wilkins matchups of the mid 1980’s. Those were some of the most entertaining games the Bulls played against a loaded Hawks team, and defense wasn’t much priority back then as well. I recall Jordan getting 61 to a routine 34 for ‘Nique in a 117-114 Bulls loss at the end of that ’86-’87 season when Jordan averaged 37. I don’t think Dominique ever scored fewer than 30 in a game against the Bulls as the two generally talked before, during and after the games.

It was great theater, if not what we’d consider great basketball these days.

The problem for these Bulls playing  a team like Atlanta is the Hawsks are big everywhere but at point guard, and Rose generally has to take Mike Bibby. So when Gordon switched to Marvin Williams, Atlanta went to Williams over and over, seeking out matchup advantages. They even had Flip Murray drive at him when he came in.

The Hawks went to Williams several times to open the third quarter, Williams scoring and getting fouled by Gordon. So then Gordon went the other way and hit a three.

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

It has to be for this Bulls team.

But seeing the Hawks’ movements, the Bulls finally started sending help for Gordon. But when Tyrus Thomas came to help, the Hawks moved the ball to Josh Smith for open jumpers.

“Our offense shot it well, too,” said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. “Everybody was clicking on all cylinders. It was just an offensive performance tonight on both sides of the ball. But in the fourth quarter, we hold them to 22 points, so our defense did pick up in that fourth quarter when we really had to buckle down.”

Good defense?

I’d say just a slump in the game at the wrong time.. The Bulls gave Lindsey Hunter and Cedric Simmons brief looks, the most significant being Simmons playing for Joakim Noah in the second half after Noah earned a benching in the second quarter after Zaza Pachulia banged inside for a score and followup, Noah getting just six scoreless minutes in perhaps even a worse night for him than last month in the United Center when Al Horford put a career high scoring on him.

Aaron Gray got back in and had another workmanlike effort with six points, five rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes, though he is too slow to recover against the quicker Hawks’ athletes who constantly had open pathways to the basket and 13 offensive rebounds in outrebounding the Bulls overall by 10.

The Bulls did the best they could do with what they had, which is try to outscore the deeper and more talented Hawks, and they almost did.

It was 35-32 Bulls after the first quarter in an effort that was far superior to anything seen the night before in Miami. And it’s not like the Heat is some lockdown defensive team.

The Bulls just weren’t into that game for some reason, but they were ready Friday. And it’s really a shame to lose when there were so many good offensive efforts.

Rose was a blur and no one on the Hawks could stay anywhere near him.

After having consecutive 10-point games and shooting seven for 23 overall against the Pistons and Heat, Rose came out attacking the way I’d like to see him play more with this team. He had seven assists because he’ll always make enough good passes when he’s trapped, as the Hawks tried at times without success, or when he is shut off at the basket, which wasn’t often as he twisted by Hawks defenders—so to speak—like Gale Sayers.

The Hawks were confused even when they tried to trap, and one time when Pachulia came out to trap and then retreated, Rose followed right behind him and was fouled at the basket. Rose wasn’t sitting back this time trying to get guys involved, though Gordon being on so quickly certainly helped.

Wilkins now broadcasts the Hawks games for Atlanta TV, and when they were in Chicago last month I talked to him about Rose and Gordon. I liked his comparison of Gordon to Andrew Toney. Toney was taller, but a quick shooter like Gordon and great scorer. Gordon often is compared to Vinnie Johnson, the great Detroit sixth man. But Ben is mush better than Vinnie. When he gets it going like Saturday it’s a treat to watch.

The Bulls tried going to zone defense several times, which wasn’t a great strategy with Johnson as hot as Gordon.

But this was the NBA the way we saw it in the early 1980’s. The leaguewide scoring average in 1982 was 108.6 per game. Every team averaged more than 100 per game with Atlanta yielding the fewest at 100.5

Defenses weren’t as sophisticated then as some of the principles brought over by the ABA innovators like Larry Brown and Hubie Brown hadn’t taken hold yet. You think the Iceman played much defense? Dr. J? Kiki Vandeweghe? Kelly Tripucka?

The latter two were part of the infamous 186-184 triple overtime thriller in the 1983-84 season. We’re not going to see anything like that again, especially not with coaches paid so much money. Earning your money often means holding the score down. That looks more like coaching. It’s why many of his colleagues demean Mike D’Antoni’s style and teams.

Can’t win in the playoffs because they can’t make stops? Perhaps, though had someone stopped Robert Horry from that assault on Steve Nash, that certainly looked like a Suns championship team to me.

The point is you go with what you have, and the Bulls have scorers.

It was a rockin’ good time as it was Hawks 68-63 at halftime.

It was like the scene in that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie with the Pinkertons relentlessly chasing them and Butch and Sundance keep asking, “Who are those guys.”

The Bulls could have given up against that kind of onslaught on the road, but they didn’t.

Especially when the Hawks laid that 21-2 run on the Bulls in the second quarter to go ahead 56-43. Second of a back to back on the road. Three of your top six out. Check, please! No way. Keep ’em comin’,

Instead, Tyrus Thomas, with 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, actually got the play coming out of a timeout and hit a free throw line jumper and drove and added a few free throws. Thabo Sefolosha, showing he can handle that small forward position with 14 points on six of eight shooting with Deng out maybe a week or two, hit both of his threes and then a hard drive for a score, and Gordon finally got going and the Bulls were back in it.

“I thought we played hard and shot well, but we just couldn’t slow them down defensively,” said Del Negro. “They’re one of the better teams in the East right now, and the reason why is it’s hard to stop Joe, and the rest of the team is very athletic.”

Sefolosha took a spin on Johnson along with Larry Hughes, the latter with 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench. And the Bulls kept coming.

They got within 86-84 midway through the third after a nice postup move by Gray, but Gray also lost Pachulia and the Hawks went ahead 91-84. Back came the Bulls with a hard Rose drive for a three-point play, Hughes with a jumper as Rose found him open and Gordon with a quick pull up three. The ball wasn’t swinging that much and the Bulls weren’t wasting too much time on the 24-second clock, and when Gordon pulled up to end the third with another three, the Bulls 12 of 20 for the game, they trailed 98-95.

Gordon set the team’s franchise record for threes in the game, passing Scottie Pippen, and Hinrich likely will pass Pippen and go into second when he returns from injury.

Johnson came out firing yet again in the fourth with a teardrop and a baseline fallaway, which Rose followed with a Crazylegs Hirsch (go look him up) move past three flailing defenders.

It was still 116-112 Atlanta with two minutes left with the Bulls playing some defense. Sometimes you do and they still hit a shot. The Bulls switched and recovered well and caused a 24-second violation with Bibby dribbling away the ball and just about caused another when Bibby threw up a desperation heave as the clock expired and hit an 18 footer to give Atlanta a 109-105 lead with six minutes left.

The Bulls doubled hard on Johnson, the right strategy for that point, but Josh Smith, who had 24, hit his only three of the game for a 114-107 lead with five minutes left.

You got the feeling it wasn’t going to happen for the Bulls.

Thomas then blocked a Johnson shot and was fouled hard by Pachulia for a flagrant foul and what would become a three-point play when Thomas was fouled on the subsequent loose ball to bring the Bulls within 114-110.

Johnson hit a jumper off a late Bulls switch and Nocioni answered with a driving basket but missed a free throw for the potential three pointer: 116-112 Hawks with three minutes left.

Thomas got Johnson again with a block. But Nocioni, playing with a stiff neck from injuries in previous games, missed an open three and then lost Williams as he went to double Johnson and Williams scored and was fouled by Hughes ducking in, Williams converting the three-point play for a 119-112 lead. Hughes then inexplicably rushed up against three Atlanta defenders and fired off a bad miss. Johnson missed the other way but with the Bulls scrambling back, Smith got open for the rebound and slammed it back for a 121-112 Hawks lead with 1:04 left, and that was about it as Atlanta closed it out with free throws.

The 1982 champion Lakers gave up 109.8 points per game. No one is saying the Bulls have that talent, but we know what the talent they have can do. It’s score and shoot. That’s the kind of season it likely has to be with the injuries and uncertainty. It certainly could be entertaining, at least.

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