Bulls shoot down Hawks


May 7

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It really was an historic night for the Bulls Friday in Atlanta in defeating the Hawks 99-82 with Derrick Rose scoring a career high 44 points.

Yes, the Bulls had a dominating defensive performance in outworking the soft Hawks 47-34 on the boards, 18-9 on the offensive boards and never trailing to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Joakim Noah had just two points but 15 rebounds and five blocks and Taj Gibson came off the bench to lead a strong second unit performance with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Kyle Korver added 11 and the reserves in the second quarter gave the Bulls a double digit lead they held the rest of the game. The Bulls bench outscored Atlanta’s 34-14.

Hawks (formerly) big scorers Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford combined for 17 points, two in the second half.

We’ve watched and read about the brilliance of Derrick Rose all season. The basketball world acknowledged it with the Most Valuable Player award this season, representing the pinnacle of NBA excellence.

But what separates the truly great ones is being able to accomplish what Rose did Friday, coming in as a visitor in the playoffs, your team having relinquished home court advantage in the series and badly needing a win. And even more, needing a boost of confidence and panache to reestablish itself, if in the world’s view as well as their own, as once again a serious contender after a shaky first three weeks of the playoffs.

Rose delivered just that kind of game, scoring the second most points to Michael Jordan in a road playoff game in franchise history while delivering a personal performance for the ages: 21 points by halftime and another 13 in the third, seven assists, five rebounds, a block and a steal, eight of nine at the free throw line and four of seven three pointers, scoring on long jumpers, mid range jumpers, drivers, floaters, slam dunks, truly every shot imaginable in the game.

Rose’s teammates and coaches don’t gush much anymore about his exploits, at least in public. Rose, of course, shrugs and goes on. I had to laugh when the ESPN sideline reporter grabbed Rose on the court after the game ended and asked about his game, Rose said, “I was just playing defense.”

There was a game filled with spectacular moments, plays and shots, a devastating loss for the Hawks, who appear more like the boxer out on his feet. They’re standing, but looking for a soft place to fall.

Johnson after the game said he was going to ignore the Bulls double teams and shoot. That sounds like a good idea. Hawks coach Larry Drew called a timeout 49 seconds into the game, ostensibly because the Hawks were indifferent on defense and lacking energy. Though on their first possession, Johnson had dribbled for about 15 seconds with everyone standing around and launched a long jumper. You have 48 hours off and that’s your offense!

Conversely, the Bulls finally did what they had to do. Which for some reason–whether it’s been Rose’s ankle sprains or distractions with the awards week or simply trying to get Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer into the game—they hadn’t in falling behind in almost every playoff game thus far.

They pitched the ball up court right away, even after made baskets, quick outlets to Rose on the wing, where Rose could attack the defense before it had a chance to set up.

Hello! What were they waiting for?

“Derrick was in attack mode and that created easy scoring opportunities for us,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He was attacking from the start. Getting the ball out quickly to him. It spread everyone out and allowed him to get into the paint. And hitting shots opened things up for him.

“He set the tone,” added Thibodeau. “When he’s not dancing with the ball and attacking he’s impossible to stop. He caught it on the run and was attacking the basket, not playing around with it. Not allowing them to catch up and he kept a of pressure on them.”

Rose and Thibodeau never say exactly what goes on in those little talks Thibodeau has with players, Rose included, in those film sessions and game reviews. Rose routinely smiles and labels them tough, as he did again after Friday’s game. He says he cannot repeat things said, certainly not while on TV. But Rose said he embraces them as tough and accusatory as they can be, and you got the sense with those “dancing” comments that Rose heard this one recently.

Sort of, ‘Enough with the dribbling!’

To paraphrase the scene from the baseball movie Bull Durham: It’s a simple game. You catch the ball, you dribble the ball, you score the ball.

“Just attacking the whole game,” said Rose. “The whole process was to come in and try to attack, get myself going and get my teammates going and tonight it worked.

“I got my groove back,” said Rose. “Knocked down shots, got guys open shots, attacked and got to the line. My teammates played great, rebounded the ball, knocked down shots, made the hustle plays. That’s who we are, a defensive team.

“The whole game we tried to push the pace,” Rose reiterated. “They were going under (screens), leaving me wide open on the jump shot, so why not take it.

“The game we lost (No. 1) hurt bad,” Rose said. “It stuck with us the whole time. We said we’re going to play better. Tonight we came out aggressive, with a lot of intensity. We’re tough to beat when we have our defense going.”

Any team, of course, looks good when it wins easily as the Bulls did leading by 22 with five minutes left. But this also is a 31-rebound margin the last two games, 32-19 on the offensive boards, and the Hawks averaging 78.5 points per game the last two.

So we know what’s coming next.

Hawks coach Drew said he might go back to the bigger lineup he used in beating Orlando—how bad must they be now to have been beaten badly by this Hawks team?—as a way to get Al Horford going as well.

Yes, the Hawks need to do something on the boards, where they are simply being outworked, though Josh Smith does appear to be getting in some nice sightseeing once the Bulls move the ball three or four times. The Hawks are not a 24-second team. We know their offense is awful, so bad that the juxtaposition Friday was Rose hearing MVP chants in Atlanta and the crowd booing every jump shot taken by Smith. But on defense, the Hawks generally play through one or two options. They’ll stop and pretty much watch after that, which enabled Noah and Gibson to effectively play their own inside game of volleyball, batting rebounds back to one another while Hawks stood around watching.

Though Rose is the big problem for now, as he always is. After all, no other Bulls starter scored in double figures as the other four combined for 21 points.

So first you consider trapping Rose as the Pacers did effectively at times, getting the ball out of his hands and making someone else make a play. The Bulls did that with Johnson and Crawford, primarily off the pick and roll rather than pressuring half court traps, and the Hawks don’t finish plays enough to get the ball back.

I thought the Hawks might try to isolate Smith more on the wing to attack Boozer, and they did that some early as Smith did have 17 points and 13 rebounds. But the Bulls kept Crawford off his shot as Crawford basically will shoot mostly off a pick and roll. They trapped that and smothered Johnson when he tried to isolate. The Bulls weakside help was terrific when the screener’s man went out to show and trap, though the Hawks are terrible at moving the ball against the grain when trapped like that. Thus, the Bulls big men can get back.

The Hawks likely will try some trapping on Rose, and then they might try to put Rose down.

“You don’t want to see anybody hurt but this is a physical game,” said Crawford. “We have to figure out what we want to do with him. We can’t give him both ways. You can’t give him threes and the outside jumper and the layups as well.”

Crawford is one of the nicer guys, but hardly a tough guy. He’s not putting anyone down.

Jeff Teague, who has been a savior of sorts for the Hawks with still another good game, this time with a team high 21 points, probably weighs 170 pounds. “Not sure what else you can do to him except maybe put him on his butt a few times,” said Teague of Rose.

Hey, was that a moth that hit me, Rose might ask about Teague.

Zaza Pachulia is the most likely to try that kind of stunt, though it would be obvious as he’s played 25 minutes in the series. These would be the last act of desperate men, which the Hawks likely are now. They probably are one more good Bulls quarter form packing it in. Notorious as front runners, if the Bulls could jump on them quickly Sunday in Game 4, they could be about done.

Assuming they don’t try jumping on Rose first.

Calling Kurt Thomas.

If Rose has a flaw, if you can call it that, it is that he does feel his way into games too often. Though since he still averages 25 points, it’s difficult to say he should be scoring more. Though that is what the Bulls need more often from him, at least scoring early to get that lead and then pushing it with the reserves.

The Bulls second unit, the self proclaimed Bench Mob, has pushed the lead quite a bit this season, and did so again Friday with a 13-6 run to open the second quarter with C.J. Watson providing the impetus with two scores and two free throws to open the second.

“C.J. is key when he pushes the ball and looks to score. That’s when he gets things going,” said Rose, who hustled enthusiastically  to greet Watson after a nifty hook pass to a streaking Gibson before Rose checked back in.

Korver had just before added a three and Gibson had hustled once again into a score.

The controversy coming into the game, at least in the media and community, was the poor play lately of Boozer. Boozer said his turf toe still bothered him some, but Thibodeau insisted he remained confident in Boozer.

“I thought Carlos played well,” said Thibodeau as Boozer had six points and six rebounds in 22 minutes. “He attacked, was aggressive. I think he’s starting to feel better. We need him. At the end of the day, he’s our most proven playoff player. As he gets healthy, he’ll play better and better. We need him out there.”

But Thibodeau went with Gibson for 26 minutes, including almost 17 second half minutes to seven for Boozer. Thibodeau never will say it. And he said that was only because the reserves were on a good run, though the other starters played their regular rotation with Gibson instead of Boozer. But Thibodeau did appear to ride the view that the one who plays better will play.

Still, Boozer was in almost a giddy, encouraging mood after the game.

“We just jumped on (Rose’s) back and went along for the ride,” Boozer said with a laugh. “I don’t know how else to say it. As a teammate it was fun to watch and witness.”

Yes, we all were witnesses.

“We had our edge tonight,” Boozer went on. “It was one of the best games we played since the regular season. The key was our defense. It seemed Joakim got every rebound. Taj was a monster off the boards. Kyle is hitting the threes.

“I’ve been with some great players,” said Boozer. “But that was one of the best games I’ve ever seen on someone else’s court. In their building to put on a show like that. Amazing. Start to finish, we had an edge on defense and got the ball to Pooh and we win. The most important game, the pivotal home game at 1-1 and he comes out and has a game like that and we just jump on his back and go along for the ride. We’ve got a great team and it’s fun to watch everyone succeed.”

Korver, too, who was coming off a one of nine shooting game, one of five on threes.

“After a game like that you want to get in the gym and shoot 600, 700 shots,” said Korver. “But when I was in Utah, Jeff Hornacek told me after a game like that, ‘Go home. Relax. You know how to shoot.’ So I took a day off and today after shootaround got a few hundred shots up and it helped. I thought we played our best overall game of the playoffs. Our defense was really good again. There was a better pace to the offense. We got out and ran. Lots of times we take the ball out of bounds and walk it up. You take time off the clock and now you’re getting it back to Derrick and he’s got to take tough shots. We’ve got the fastest person in the world on our team. So let’s get out and run.”

And it made all the difference.

Boom. The Bulls threw outlets up to Rose near halfcourt and he took off. Noah ran as a trailer, swooping into the boards and keeping the Hawks off balance and out of position.

After Deng opened the game with a 20 footer, Rose ran for a layup after that Johnson miss, the Hawks called timeout, which some of the Atlanta players complained about as an embarrassment with the coach holding them up to ridicule. Geez. Rose again sprinted the court after a Horford miss and was fouled.

Boozer made a nice crosscourt pass for a Keith Bogans three and then scored on his own drop step move. Rose was back making those hard drives to the basket, cupping the ball to keep from losing it and throwing himself through the defenders like we haven’t seen in weeks.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” said Korver. “But it feels like he’s glad this MVP stuff is done and he can just play basketball again. He’s handled it so well. But it’s a lot for a 22 year old. Then he began hitting some jump shots and it opened everything up.”

Rose agreed it was a relief to just, as he likes to say, ball.

The Bulls led 29-23 after one quarter when the bench took over, extending the lead to 42-29 and the Bulls closing the half ahead 56-43 as the Hawks did close with an 8-2 run. The Bulls got a little scare when Rose jammed his pinky trying to get the ball away from Crawford before halftime, Crawford losing it when no foul was called and getting  a technical.

The Bulls surged again after half time with Rose and Bogans hitting threes, and Gibson was really good taking a nice pocket bounce pass from Rose for a score and fooling Smith with a terrific ball fake for a foul and a pair of free throws that gave the Bulls an 80-63 lead after three.

“We played with a lot of heart and aggression,” said Gibson. “A lot of guts and energy, guys who will go after long rebounds. We take pride in that. We said to ourselves we had an opportunity. There are not  a lot of teams that have the chance to play in the second round in a hostile environment and play well and get a win.”

Not like the Hawks ever seriously threatened as Noah and Gibson had their own cover two going when Rose missed a shot and Noah tipped the ball and missed, so Gibson grabbed it and put it back in. Hello, calling Hawks’ defenders!

“The bench was unbelievable,” said Noah. “They have been huge for us all year. How many times has our bench got us out of tough situations? Defensively, they’re unbelievable. C.J. was doing his thing. Taj-e-woo was special. Kyle’s presence, Ronnie Brewer defensively, everybody. It was a great team effort. We played or best game in the playoffs. But we’re not satisfied. We realize we’re going to get a little bit of praise after this game, but it doesn’t help you win basketball games.”

Not like Rose, anyway.

Horford did make a pair of shots after that in what has been a brutal series for him in which he’s been dominated by Noah, a turnaround from many previous encounters between the two. So the Bulls called a timeout with 8:12 left and the Hawks within 86-75.

The Bulls went to Rose, who looked to pass. But with no one open and Teague all over him, Rose spun, reversed and put up a 14 foot turnaround over Teague.

The Hawks deflated, and the building soon began to empty as Rose banged in a three as Gibson sealed his man as well as Crawford trying to get to Rose, who hit his fourth three to go back up 16 with six minutes left.

I ran into Hawks president Rick Sund leaving the arena and he literally was shaking his head.

“Teague played good defense on that play,” Sund said. “He was right up on him. When Rose is hitting shots like that how do you play him. It’s MVP stuff.”

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