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Bulls even series with 86-73 grinder

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May 5

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The Bulls played harder Wednesday in defeating the Atlanta Hawks 86-73 to even the Eastern Conference Semifinals at 1-1 with Game 3 in Atlanta Friday.

The Bulls didn’t necessarily play much better, their offense continuing to remain unimpressive and stalled. Derrick Rose, who received his MVP award from NBA commissioner David Stern before the game to raucous appreciation, led the Bulls with 25 points and 10 assists. And though pronouncing himself fit, Rose did seem affected by his multiple ankle sprains with less hard side to side movement and cutting.

Carlos Boozer, struggling through a turf toe injury, had eight points and 11 rebounds, but numerous shots blocked and was booed before being replaced by Taj Gibson with four minutes left after the Hawks had cut a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to 77-71.

But Luol Deng, with another strong defensive effort in 46 minutes with 14 points and 12 rebounds, scored out of the timeout on a nice play from Bulls coach Tom Thobodeau.

The Hawks, other than pretty much Al Horford among their regulars, don’t contest particularly hard, which has made the Bulls struggles more worrisome. Joakim Noah, who was the Bulls star with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three steals, set a double screen with Gibson. Deng came over the top, losing trailing Joe Johnson. Josh Smith failed to help, hardly surprising, and Deng made a nice duck in move with the ball and scored for a 79-71 Bulls lead with 3:56 left.

The Bulls defense and manic effort, which won the game despite the lack of artistry or flow on offense, then shut down the Hawks in three straight possessions to effectively end the game in sort of the basketball version of the fourth quarter goal line stand. Here’s what it looked like:

– Deng met Johnson high after Johnson had hurt the Bulls in the Hawks Game 1 win with 34 points. “I was more into him,” said Deng. “I wanted to make him a driver. I knew the help was there, so just don’t give him a lot of space and then when he gives up the ball try to deny him.” The Hawks’ scorers don’t like pressure defense, which the Bulls only discussed in Game 1 but failed to provide. Though Thibodeau said they showed on screens on Johnson in Game 1, it had to be a mirage. This time Johnson saw help as he came off every screen, and Kyle Korver came up to trap. Johnson tried to throw back to Korver’s man and sailed the ball out of bounds. The Hawks are terrible against pressure, generally failing to move or reverse the ball with any accuracy, their stand-and-admire offense not geared that way. “We did a poor job of shot selection,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “That was our undoing.” The larger question is when is it not.

– On the Hawks’ next possession after a Korver miss, his ugly eighth in nine attempts as the Hawks did a good job with substitute point guard Jeff Teague chasing Korver off shots, Deng met Johnson high near midcourt again. Johnson tried to beat Deng going left, but Noah came out hard. Gibson did a good interior job helping on a rolling Al Horford, so Johnson took a 16 footer which missed and Noah rebounded.

– Rose missed a pull up as his ankle has to be an issue. He rarely drove the ball against even a weak defender like Jamal Crawford and now is 21-54 in the two games. “That will change,” he promised. This time the Hawks tried to go to Crawford, their other principal offensive option as Smith and Marvin Williams combined to shoot six for 23. Noah came out behind Rose to help on Crawford, who gave the ball back on top to Smith. He went back to Johnson, who dribbled left with Deng pinned to him and Gibson jumping out to help. Smith released toward the three point line. Johnson gave it back to him and Smith, a wild shooter with curious basketball instincts, launched a rainbow three that went in and out and Gibson rebounded.

There were now just over two minutes left and Rose then would once have gone all the way to the rim, especially against a smallish team like the Hawks with Al Horford at center. Rose drove, but passed off to Gibson along the right baseline. Gibson’s jumper was blocked by a flying Teague, who was the Hawks best player in Game 2 as an emergency substitute for the injured Kirk Hinrich. But Gibson grabbed the blocked shot and dropped it off to Deng, who was in the lane and quickly put the ball up for an 81-71 lead with just over two minutes left.

The Hawks called timeout, but came up dry one more time. Teague went by Korver, but was met at the baseline by Noah and Gibson and fired a pass out to Horford, who missed a 20 footer and that was about it.

“We played more aggressive and we were more into them defensively,” said Deng. “That’s the way we have to play. That’s our game. We have to play aggressively.”

It was as simple as that, if the execution isn’t always as easy.

It requires urgency and commitment, and as Thobodeau likes to say, multiple efforts.

It was more reminiscent of the way the Bulls played defense in the regular season, though the offense has stalled badly. There are various theories as well as potential reasons. There’s Rose’s possible ankle problems, which everyone dismisses. He’s averaging 24.5 points, similar to the regular season, but we’re not quite seeing the explosive nature.

“I’m fine,” said Rose. “I feel my confidence is real high. Shots I normally hit just did not fall. The way they are playing me (loose and laying off), I’m going to continue to shoot, things are going to change. I’m fine as long as we win. I’m just trying to go out and play hard and play together and put up a good fight. We came out aggressive on both ends making sure they took tough shots. We’ve got to continue to hustle because things are just going to get harder.”

Although Teague has played exceptionally and surprisingly well, he is slightly built and should be an easy mark for Rose. Granted, Teague has played Korver a lot in a smart move as Teague’s quickness has frustrated Korver. If you get to Korver as he’s about to catch, he’ll usually move the ball or rush a shot. Teague has done that well. So that’s left the defensively challenged Crawford on Rose, and Rose has risen up to shoot most of the time against Crawford.

The other theories are: Too many awards and distractions with coach of the year and MVP. “I’m just happy that it’s over now, and we can just ball out,” Rose said. I believe that is a good thing. There’s the other teams raising their game in the playoffs thing while the Bulls played at a playoff level all season. The Bulls have had much more trouble running an unhindered offense. And there’s the fatigue issue of playing so hard during the season and not having enough left. None can be proven, of course, and remain less than informed speculation. And, of course, the simple notion that the Bulls were overachievers and it is all catching up to them.

There’s no question it’s been a brutal playoffs for Boozer, who seems lost mentally now and being booed at home.

“I just want to make the shots that I had blocked,” said Boozer. “I’m just going to keep on playing.”

The fans cheered when Gibson replaced him late. Players and coaches were asked about it and rallied to Boozer’s defense. Or defense of his offense.

“Carlos is giving us everything he has,” said Thibodeau. “He’s nicked up. He’s playing hard. He’s on the boards. The rebounding is huge. We need that rebounding. His offense will come around.”

Noah addressed it in post game comments, and clearly was annoyed. He paused for several seconds before answering, and later expressed resentment about the questioning of Boozer.

“I think it’s very hard sometimes,” said Noah. “Our home crowd, it (can be) a tough place to play. We have a lot of love for our crowd. Through tough times we’ve got to stick together. I’ve been in this position before. My rookie year I was booed. It’s tough being booed in front of the home crowd. It’s important for us to stick together. We’re trying to represent this city, this team as well as we can. We’ve got the MVP. Derrick is doing a great job being a leader and representing he city. With Carlos, people have to understand he’s playing through an injury right now. He’s giving us what he’s got. He’s somebody who has an unbelievable presence. He opens up a lot of things for us. Sometimes people are quick to bash one player. But this is a team and we know we need Carlos to get where we want to go.”

We assume that means to a championship, though this hasn’t looked anything like a serious contending team in these playoffs except perhaps for one game, Game 5 against the Pacers.

The Bulls Wednesday got back to their defensive formula of help and rotation and relentless effort, outrebounding the Hawks 58-39 and holding them to 33.8 percent shooting. Although the Hawks technically have home court advantage with the Game 1 win, it’s difficult to see the Bulls still not winning this series relatively easily.

Maybe Williams and Smith shoot better at home, though I question the way they went back to a smaller lineup starting Williams and benching Jason Collins and using Zaza Pachulia less. After an indifferent Game 1 against Smith, Noah took advantage of the smalller Smith badly in Game 2 and the Bulls left the shaky Williams alone to miss badly. After combining for 54 points in Game 1, Johnson and Crawford had 27 in Game 2.

“Nothing we haven’t seen,” said Crawford. “I just think we didn’t handle it correctly. I’m not worried. I think we’ll be fine in Games 3 and 4. We usually shoot better at home. We came here to get two. We got one. We’ll go back to Atlanta and take care of business.”

The Hawks do have more ball handlers and players who can make plays off the dribble, at least in theory, than the Bulls. But their offense is predictable and stagnant. The Bulls, though, haven’t been able to shake them playing much too slowly. They’ve failed to push the ball with any regularity. Thibodeau keeps talking about “playing with pace,” but it’s nowhere to be seen. The Bulls are best when doing that and can slip Rose into seems and thus to the free throw line (he was four of six Wednesday after 0-0 in Game 1). That also seems the best way to get production from Boozer. Boozer has a career average of more than 20 per game in the playoffs, but he is best with quick hitters and taking the ball on the run. Perhaps it’s conditioning after several ankle injuries during the season and now the toe problem. But he is being smothered with Smith coming over to block shots when trying to post up or go at his defender from a post catch.

Early in the game as the Bulls tried to find him he seemed to panic with no one to give the ball to and fired off a forced jumper that missed. I thought Rose would come out flying and fast to put the Hawks on their heels and playing uphill, which is when they are poorest. But the Bulls once again could not and didn’t get a field goal until more than three minutes in, and that a Noah post move against Smith.

“I’m not somebody who has a lot of plays run for me,” said Noah. “Derrick finds me sometimes and I just get some garbage down there. That’s about it.”

The Hawks took a 9-6 lead almost midway into the first quarter after the stirring reception for Rose’s MVP award unveiling before the home crowd.

But the Hawks even fooled the Bulls with two nicely executed back door cuts for easy layups to stay at 13-13 and send Thibodeau into an angry, early timeout. But the Bulls came out displaying what would be their calling card for the game and path to this victory.

Gibson went on the floor to wrestle a ball away from Pachulia. Deng got back after a Rose turnover, among an alarming eight, to force Williams to miss an easy layup on a runout. Several times Bulls defenders hustled back after long rebounds or turnovers to thwart Hawks layups or dunks, forcing the Hawks also into several misses at the rim.

“We were just more aggressive. We played a lot better defense,” said Noah. “But we can do better.”

Those defensive extra efforts and the relentless rotations thwarted the Hawks and main scorers Johnson and Crawford, and the Bulls moved ahead 25-17 after one to basically take the lead for the rest of the game.

The Hawks had only one quarter in which they shot more than 40 percent. They tried some zone against the Bulls in the second quarter, though not for long and trailed 48-37 at halftime as Gibson and Noah got the Bulls four extra possessions for scores in the second quarter.

“They came out and applied pressure,” said Teague, who has played 84 minutes with one turnover. “They got up into us. They made every catch we got tough. They came at Joe, double teamed. It kind of frustrated us as a team because he got it going the first game.”

The Bulls maintained the double figure edge most of the third quarter as Atlanta tried to force the ball into Johnson. But Deng continued to make it difficult in switching onto Johnson, who had his way earlier against Keith Bogans.

The Bulls led 65-58 after three, doing just enough to stay ahead with Rose stumbling through an indifferent quarter. The Hawks closed some, but failed to take enough advantage. Atlanta did get their deficit down to six late in the fourth with a little run when the Bulls helping gave Teague and Smith some openings. But the Bulls closed out Atlanta with that final defensive stand, the signature of the victory, and Noah’s consistent second efforts.

“Monster game,” said Boozer of Noah. “He dunked the crap out of the ball. He was playing like a monster.”

It’s how the Bulls were able to get the best record in the NBA this season and have the league’s MVP. They are 5-2 in the playoffs, which sounds pretty good. They maintain that’s all that matters, and it is true to an extent.

It’s just playoff basketball, it’s said, which is uglier and tougher, where cutters are bumped and egos are bruised. Where you also have to raise you game to match the moment. We’ll see if that is still coming.

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