Bulls send Hawks to the brink


May 11

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Derrick Rose was terrific, as usual, getting 33 points and nine assists in Tuesday’s Bulls 95-83 victory over the Atlanta Hawks that gave the Bulls a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Luol Deng came back impressively from a cool weekend in Atlanta with 23 points. Carlos Boozer added 11 points and 12 rebounds and Keith Bogans made three three pointers.

But this was a game for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and not only why he deserved Coach of the Year, but how he is growing along with his players.

The Bulls drew within one game of clinching the series because Thibodeau was willing to do what he never does and raised his own game as well to match the stakes and circumstances.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Bulls were the proverbial speedboat engine that had failed, dead in the waters of hostility. Yes, the Bulls led 69-68. But the Hawks had recovered effortlessly from a 15-point deficit and still were shooting almost 53 percent for the game.

The TNT sideline microphone caught Thibodeau in a timeout not making up another play or formation, but basically trying to keep his youngsters from hyperventilating.

“Look, everyone relax,” Thibodeau instructed. “Breathe, breathe.”

This did not sound like the instructions to a confident team.

Joakim Noah still was scoreless in the game. Boozer had just played 10 third quarter minutes and scored during just one possession. The Hawks had just shot 60 percent in the quarter and were getting everything they wanted without much resistance but for a cheap shot elbow out of frustration from Boozer to Josh Smith that drew a double technical when Smith retaliated. There was virtually zero protection at the basket with Noah and Boozer relentlessly out of position.

Thibodeau believes in structure, and it’s been a major reason the Bulls have been so successful this season. Players have their roles and their responsibilities, and Thibodeau rarely varies.

But this was the moment of the season. Lose this game and it likely was the last in Chicago for the season.

Thibodeau went back to Rose, as he did to open the fourth quarter of Game 4, eschewing his normal rest along with Thibodeau’s talisman, Deng.

But Thibodeau also opted for defense.

Generally, Thibodeau goes for offense in the fourth quarter, using Kyle Korver with Boozer. But this was as radical departure and lineup as Thibodeau has used all season, and it was a magic potion.

Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer provided the energy and effort that had been evaporating. Go back and watch the beginning of the fourth quarter and you’ll see a virtual clinic on help defense from Asik. Gibson had been probably the most energetic Bull in this series, but underutilized as Thibodeau continued to try to expand Boozer’s presence. Brewer had been in something of a funk since his thumb injury and seemingly down on himself.

But this truly was a desperate time.

So Thibodeau benched Boozer and Noah for the entire fourth quarter, and that saved the game, if not the season. Gibson had 11 points in the fourth, Brewer had five rebounds and two steals and while Asik had three rebounds and a block, his help was inspirational: Sealing two men to allow a Deng score, cutting off Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford on the same possession to prevent layups, forcing the ball out of Al Horford’s hands into a turnover.

“Those guys played hard,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “They are three blue collar workers. They came out and we felt their presence physically. They worked harder than we did. Give credit where credit is due. Those guys affected the game. They played harder and played more physically and made their presence felt.”

It really was brilliant, if unrecorded in the box score, stuff. It was the so called little things that win big games.

“We’ve said all along that we’re very confident in our bench,” said Thibodeau. “Our bench has played well all season. So it’s always somebody different. If somebody’s going well, we will ride that group.”

But will he?

I know Noah was named second team all defense, and he is a tornado of energy and effort. But he often wears himself out as the game progresses. Plus, his basket protection is inconsistent because he roams so much on defense. Boozer, how shall we say, isn’t exactly a defensive stopper. Though you often hear, and I cannot deny, the most points wins the game. The question is how you get then and who you are.

The Bulls have liked to say they are a defensive team, but they tend to go with an offensive lineup down the stretch in most games. And I’m not about to argue with 62 wins. Though we keep getting told the playoffs are different, and while Thibodeau had been playing that offensive card most of this series, he instinctively, if not out of necessity, returned to his defensive roots to win Game 5, perhaps seeing the confused looks in his players’ eyes that apparently prompted that late third quarter plea for quiescence.

“This is the playoffs so you’re going to be in tight quarters,” said Thibodeau. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I thought that they hung tough and stayed together and got some timely baskets. We also got some stops. I thought that was the big thing and I thought that our energy for that group was really good.”

Which begs the question of where you go from here, other than Atlanta.

Will we see more of that defensive lineup in the fourth quarter? Boozer and Noah for three and the Gibson and Asik to finish, and, frankly, they are a better defensive tandem. I don’t think so, but it certainly remains a strong option and Thibodeau showed he’ll go to them.

“It was just the way the game unfolded and some of the match ups that we had. It sort of forced our hand a little bit,” said Thibodeau. “We’ll see how it unfolds. We said all along we’re very confident in our bench. I thought our starters played well. I thought Keith got off to a great start. I thought Carlos got off to a great start. I thought Carlos rebounded the ball in traffic extremely well. I thought his post moves were extremely aggressive. I thought we had a number of people play well and we needed everybody.”

Thibodeau isn’t changing any starting lineups, certainly not after staying with the same group and having so much success this season. Though I did love the lineup that had Deng guarding Johnson and Gibson guarding Smith when the Hawks, as they like to do, went small late. It showed Deng can play shooting guard, if needed, and the Bulls can go to a bigger lineup as Gibson can play Smith, and he played him well. But Bogans did do a good job making Johnson work early in the game. Thibodeau also showed he is willing and able to adapt to the circumstances, which makes you feel a lot better about the team’s chances.

“Playing defense, that was the big thing,” said Rose. “They are a good shooting team and we tried our hardest to shut down their scorers. We played with a good pace. Off a miss, we pushed the ball. I was kind of surprised (the lineup that finished), but they brought a lot of energy. They really hustled and were blocking shots and rebounding. They did everything that we wanted. In the playoffs, the guys have to come in and play as good as the starters. Tonight they showed that.

“Coach said we have to go through the fire together. Every series has tested us in every way,” said Rose. “We know that going down there they are going to give us their all. If we come out and play our way, defense first, we can make things tough on them.”

The Bulls did do a lot of good things Tuesday.

They closed down the Hawks transition, especially by Josh Smith, that gave them trouble in Game 4. The Bulls led in points in the paint, second chance points and fast breaks. The Bulls did get some breaks from the officials with Smith in early foul trouble, Boozer failing to get called on several obvious pushing violations which were putting him in foul trouble in previous games and an apparent foul against Jeff Teague late after a steal the Bulls turned into a score. The Bulls shot 28 free throws to 17 for Atlanta as Rose shot 13. But the Bulls also were the aggressor this time, which leads to foul calls as they closed better on the shooters, holding the Hawks to one of 12 on threes with Crawford and Johnson combing for 17 points on seven of 24 shooting. Teague led the Hawks with 21 points.

“We’re allowing them to take us out of our offense,” said Drew. “We’ve got to come out in Game 6 (Thursday) and play like a team that’s desperate, play with a lot of energy, play composed and make sure we don’t take possessions off. We have to play like our backs are against the wall. Because it is.”

The Bulls started the game with a burst, leading 32-21 after the first quarter and 32-17 late. Deng had 11 in the first quarter and answered the question of who would step up offensively to support Rose with shots in four of the Bulls first five possessions.

“I just wanted to come out aggressive from the start of the game,” said Deng. “I thought the last few games, or the games there, I wasn’t aggressive to begin with. I just made sure that I was going to come out aggressive and I thought we all did a good job of being aggressive early.”

Smith drew his second foul and had to go out with the Bulls ahead 18-15, and they took off after that as Bogans had a field day offensively against Crawford, even driving the ball for a score.

But the Hawks got back in it in the second quarter, which wasn’t a good omen for the Bulls. The book on the Hawks is to get that big early lead and they’ll fold. They apparently were listening to music and forgot to read that book Tuesday.

The Hawks went back to that big lineup with Jason Collins starting, though he’s been awful. It’s been Smith at small forward in a sort of point forward position that’s hurt the Bulls. Zaza Pachulia has been good, and he torched Boozer in the second quarter as he scored nine points. He was averaging three in the series.

Rose was pushing the ball, getting to the line in three consecutive possessions, but the Hawks weren’t going away this time.

“Derrick can shoot 100 times. I don’t care,” said Deng about Rose being questioned regarding shots in the game 4 loss. “He’s making shots. He’s the MVP. He’s been dong that all year. I feel there’s always something for people to pick on. We don’t care who gets the shots. All we care about is winning. If Derrick needs to take 40 or 50 shots, that’s fine with me.”

Rose would have if not for that marvelous fourth quarter defensive stand.

The Hawks kept pushing back in the third quarter and the Bulls were wilting. The ball stopped moving sharply and it seemed Noah and Boozer were gassed. No one was getting back when Rose was penetrating and Teague was running out and scoring. The transition defense was poor, and suddenly the Hawks had their first lead of the game, 64-63 after Smith finally hit a jumper. Bulls players were passing on shots, and only a strong close of the quarter by Deng gave the Bulls a 69-68 lead entering the fourth quarter. There was a murmur of anxiety in the United Center as the realization struck that this could be the last quarter the home fans would see this wonderful group.

“This is a great time of the year,” said Thibodeau. “We work all season to get to this point and these are great games. They’re great teams that you are going against. It is going to test you in a lot of different ways. You have to have resolve and you have to be able to stay together.”

Thibodeau usually goes to the bench to open the second and fourth quarters. But after both losses in this series, he opened the fourth quarter with Rose, Deng and either Noah or Boozer. This time he went with his iron men, Rose and Deng, but with the defensive group of Asik, Gibson and Brewer after playing Korver just four minutes without a shot early.

The Hawks opened the fourth with a score to retake the lead, but then Rose drove hard down the left side for a layup. Like in Atlanta in Game 4, the Hawks abandoned the traps and strong shows in the fourth quarter for getting back and clogging the lane with shot blockers. But as Rose said, he adjusted. It’s amazing what he does for a 22-year-old. The Hawks had been getting him as he went in deep and didn’t get the calls. The league has been urging referees this season to not call fouls if the interior defender goes straight up even if there is contact.

So Rose began shooting his floater sooner and higher, just out of the reach of Smith, or going more quickly when he saw the opening before the defense could set, as he did with that first drive.

“I thought he was terrific,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “I thought he had good balance. I thought he was attacking the basket. He got to the line 13 times. I want him to continue to do that. I thought he distributed the ball well. I thought his defense was good. I think you (media) guys measure his shots all the time. But we need him to shoot like that for us to win.”

Asik forced Johnson into a miss on a strong close, and then Deng scored on a dive cut and pass from Rose with Asik sealing off two Hawks inside to give Deng an open lane.

Asik then cut off Johnson as he missed stepping farther out. Rose took off out of the backcourt and found Gibson, who made a strong move through contact for a three point play.

“My teammates were looking for me. I was playing with a lot of energy, and I was making some baskets,” said Gibson. “One thing about us is that we play with a lot of energy and we are a hard-nosed team.”

Asik then thwarted Horford one on one, and Brewer picked off his pass out when Deng came over to trap.

Rose then drove hard off an Asik screen that stood up two Hawks and Rose scored for a 78-70 Bulls lead and 9-0 run that effectively won the game with 8:30 left.

But there was more, terrific defense from the Blue Collar three.

Asik came from the weak side to block a Smith shot and Smith missed again, though Atlanta got the ball back and Teague was fouled and made two. But Rose answered with a drive and two free throws of his own or an 80-72 lead.

Smith went at Gibson and was fouled, and then the Bulls pounded the offensive boards with Brewer and Gibson both getting offensive rebounds before a Rose miss. But now the arena was in a frenzy sensing the energy and resolve Thibodeau could not find earlier.

Brewer made another steal and the Bulls attacked the rim again with Smith getting one block on Deng but then a goaltend against Brewer’s offensive rebound and 82-74 Bulls lead with 6:40 left.

Johnson hit a jumper, but Rose drove again and was fouled, scoring and getting a three point play and then Deng stripped Johnson for a turnover and exulted to the crowd.

“I really think that in the past I wouldn’t have done that,” said Deng. “I really feel that I am one of the leaders on this team. When I do stuff like that and when the crowd gets into it, the guys see it and guys will follow. In the past I was more quiet. I didn’t show a lot of emotion. But most of the time it was because I was following. I feel like I am a much better leader now. Especially with the way this year went and everything and being there when guys were hurt really helped me with my leadership.”

“We need him on the floor,” said Thibodeau.

Atlanta pulled within 85-79 with 4:54 left on a Horford jumper. But Gibson then was big with a spinning drive for a score, a drive and a jumper around a Rose runner high over Smith to put the game away.

“I have been playing basketball a long time,” said Gibson, “but tonight was special.”

The trio of Brewer, Asik and Gibson played for entire fourth quarter for the first time this season in a crucial sequence. The Hawks shot 31.3 percent for the quarter after being over 50 percent all game and were outscored 26-15.

And now the Bulls are just a game away from the conference finals. We’ll see whom Thibodeau relies upon to try to help the Bulls get there.

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