Hawks stun Bulls to open semifinals


May 3

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Carlos Boozer came out of the Bulls locker room long after Monday’s 103-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals walking slowly and limping on his turf toe injury.

“The toe hurt a lot,” acknowledged Boozer, who had a respectable 14 points and eight assists. “It loosened up as the game went along. I had to get going for my guys, but I missed some jumpers.”

Derrick Rose, who had 24 points and 10 assists though without a free throw for the first time since December, got into a waiting golf cart, though without any golf clubs. Never a great sign. Rose had tweaked his sore left ankle in a freak moment at the end of the game as the Hawks were dribbling out the win.

“I should be fine,” said Rose, who is expected to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player Tuesday as the league usually makes the award the beginning of the second round. “Of course, it hurts now, but it should be good. It is the same ankle (he hurt in the Pacers series). I’ll take my time and make sure it feels good, get an X-ray just to make sure everything is good.”

But everything is not so great with the Bulls, and though Rose and his teammates remain confident, they know for sure now nothing is coming easy.

“We came out and let one slip, especially at home. We don’t usually lose at home (39-5). It’s going to be a series,” said Rose. “A good series. It’s (Atlanta) a good team. They’re playing well. It’s going to be tough.”

Hardly anyone thought so, certainly me included. I had the Bulls in four after watching those last two blowout wins over the Hawks. After all, this was an Atlanta team with the most 20-point losses for a winning team in league history, a team coming into this series with 15 consecutive losses in the conference semifinals. How is that even possible? The last time they even won a game in the second round was against the Bulls in 1997. They’d closed the season losing 12 of their last 20. And, yes, they beat the Magic in six games in the opening round—with the obligatory blowout loss, of course—but this is one of the wackiest teams in the league with shot selection from the J.R. Smith school of restraint.

Plus, they were missing their starting point guard, former Bull Kirk Hinrich, expected to miss the series with a hamstring injury. They were starting Jeff Teague, who some at Wake Forest considered the erratic teammate compared with James Johnson.

But the Hawks took the lead from the start, 14-4 against a sleepwalking Bulls, held it into the third quarter, then lost it. But trailing 66-60 with about four minutes left in the third, the Hawks engineered a 27-9 run over the next nine minutes to take the game. The Bulls scored four points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.

“Coach always says to play with an edge,” said Rose, whose teammates all were asked to comment on Rose’s MVP award even though there has been no official announcement from the NBA. “It wasn’t there tonight. All we’re trying to do now is get the next one.”

Wakeup call? Rose was asked.

“I hope we don’t wakeup too late,” said Rose. “I hope it’s the next game.”

That would become the first so called must game of the playoffs as everyone knows the Game 1 stat that teams that win go on to win the round 78 percent of the time. Teams that lose the first two at home are basically charbroiled.

The Bulls have always responded to these kinds of things, and they did against the Pacers in a surprisingly tough series. Maybe we should stop being surprised. We wondered if the Bulls could raise their amazing hard playing game all season in the playoffs to match their opponents’. They have not been able to as yet.

A visiting team winning a playoff round opener on the home court usually suggests a long series. It happened just about every time for the championship Bulls. They lost Game 1 at home in the 1992 second round to the Knicks and then went seven, just the second time they would in six title runs.

You give a team confidence, which is perhaps most fatal against a team like the Hawks, considered a notorious front runner.

“Critical, very critical,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “When we start a game off [well], I think, psychologically that really plays into our favor. Trying to get off to a fast start is something we talk about all the time.”

Getting that 28-18 lead after one quarter got them into the series, and then Joe Johnson with 34 points and Jamal Crawford off the bench with 22 shot them to the victory.

“It was surreal,” said Crawford. “This was where it all started for me, and to come back and get one like this is great. Winning one like this can shake a team, though this Bulls team is really good. But we want to be greedy and get No. 2. We believed it was a good matchup for us coming in. Hey, what do we have to lose, anyway? No one gave us a chance. We came to compete and have fun.”

The Hawks did have a lot of fun in scoring 103 points, shooting 51.3 percent—in the playoffs, yet—against the league’s (formerly?) best defense. They outrebounded the league’s (formerly) second best rebounding team 38-37. They held Rose to 11 of 27 shooting, though it seemed more like Rose held himself down.

“It’s tough when your best player limps off with an injury you know he had before,” said Joakim Noah. “But the games don’t wait for anybody.”

You’d say Rose wasn’t into it, and he seemed unusually passive to start the game. The Hawks were playing Teague, a slightly built rarely used second year player whom Rose could beat off the dribble while sending text messages, you would think. I didn’t think the Hawks doubles were even very aggressive on Rose. Certainly less so than what he saw from the Pacers, basically just shows off the pick and roll. But Rose settled for jumpers, missing his first seven shots and not scoring a field goal until five minutes left in the first half.

I’m not saying it’s an excuse, but there’s been an awful lot of celebrating going on around the Bulls with Thibodeau’s coach of the year award Sunday and Rose’s apparently pending MVP, which teammate C.J. Watson first leaked late last week. It’s great to get recognition, but two ceremonies so close like that probably isn’t any favor to the Bulls getting ready to start a playoff round. The Bulls always had trouble in those championship trophy games, and they gave the 2006 champion Heat quite a whipping on their trophy night. These things hardly mesh with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s one quarter at a time life.

The Bulls to a man insisted they didn’t overlook or underestimate a Hawks team widely dismissed. But they do live in the community, and the community has spent the last several weeks contemplating Finals’ matchups as if the Eastern Conference is a mere annoyance. Thibodeau’s demands to live a game or moment at a time and never look ahead have inspired and united this Bulls team. But they’ve spent the better part of the last week congratulating someone for winning something. And it’s just the second round!

“I’m good,” Rose said. “I just missed shots. My confidence has not changed. Missing shots is part of the game. Next game those shots are going to go down.”

Those of us around Rose since he came to the Bulls know never to doubt him. But now he will be playing with a twice sprained ankle, and while being asked to come out more aggressively, the larger question will be whether he can. Or for how long?

Luol Deng was the Bulls best player Monday with 21 points and six rebounds, and constantly stepping into the breech when the Hawks made runs. Boozer did have one good stretch in the third quarter with three strong post moves of the sort we’d seen earlier in the season, though just two shots in the fourth quarter. Kyle Korver hit three of four threes and scored nine points, but played just 16 minutes. Thibodeau left him on the bench all second half until six minutes remained, apparently for defensive reasons with the Hawks having made a run and Thibodeau looking for defensive plays to ignite the offense.

But the Bulls offered one of their poorer defensive efforts, less in overplaying a hot shooter like Johnson than simply in failing to aggressively help, get over screens, push the pick and roll down, crowd the paint and push outward for strong closes.

“Not one aspect of our defense was good,” lamented Thibodeau. “Once they get a lead and get comfortable they are hard to slow down.”

The kind of defensive stuff we saw all season seemed to go availing Monday.

“Our defense was terrible,” said an annoyed Deng. “They did a good job coming out early and jumping off to a good start. For some reason, we were not ready for tonight’s game. To be honest, they were and came ready for us.

“Whether they get credit or not, that’s the way they play. They have guys who can make shots,” said Deng. “They had their way with us. We cannot measure the game (to start). Teams are coming out at us. Indiana did that, coming out aggressively to start. It gives them confidence. We’ve got to get back to playing with an edge.”

I also thought the offensive movement was weak. The Bulls did have a reasonable 21 assists, but the ball wasn’t, as they say, hopping. There were only a few occasions with multiple passes to move a defense that generally isn’t very good or active. But the Bulls did a lot of standing around, which usually is a Hawks’ specialty.

So, yes, the Bulls would expect more from Rose in Game 2 Wednesday. But consider the Hawks got a modest nine points from Al Horford, who was in early foul trouble, yet the Bulls never attacked him to draw more fouls in the second half.

Teague was surprisingly good, finishing with 10 points and five assists and often beating the Bulls perimeter into the lane. Hawks coach Larry Drew said he presented a game ball to Teague, whom Drew hardly seemed to know was on the team all season. But it seemed inexcusable for the Bulls to allow such an inexperienced ball handler to go where he wanted without pressure. And Rose is so much stronger and quicker than Teague he should have been able to punish him just driving into him.

Rose did that coming out after halftime as he rode Teague off a dribble and the next time down drove and Teague literally bounced off Rose, who scored for a 56-53 lead just after the Bulls took their first lead of the game.

The game almost seemed scripted from so much we’d seen from the Bulls this season: The slow start because the starting unit isn’t built for scoring with Noah and Keith Bogans. Then the energetic second unit coming in and tightening the defense in the second quarter, which they did as the Bulls rode their hustle back to trailing 51-50 at halftime despite playing an awful first half.

“I think we came out to score in the third quarter, but they got hot, hit a couple of tough shots with time running down,” said Rose. “We have to come out and have a different approach to the game.”

The starters were to come back with a Thibodeau halftime fueled dose of energy and take the game away, which seemed about to happen with Boozer calling for the ball and scoring six straight Bulls points on post moves in a two-minute stretch for a 64-59 third quarter lead. Noah’s dunk off Boozer being double teamed gave the Bulls that 66-60 lead midway through the third.

But Johnson, whom the Bulls were pursuing in free agency until he returned to the Hawks for the largest contract last summer, got going and pulled the Hawks back in front 72-71 after three.

Johnson then opened the fourth quarter with a three, Crawford added another, Zaza Pachulia was in the right place for a pair of putbacks, and when Johnson hit still another three on a Crawford handoff with 7:13 left, the Hawks had stunned the previously celebratory home crowd to go ahead 87-75 with 7:13 left.

It had been an expectant crowd with Thibodeau getting his coach of the year award trophy from NBA executive Stu Jackson and Blackawks national anthem singer Jim Cornelison putting the crowd in a patriotic and expectant mood. It didn’t last long.

The Bulls would get it down to 87-81 in just over another minute with Rose hitting Noah for a dunk and adding his own after a Pachulia turnover.

But the Hawks had downsized as they did much of the game, and Johnson hit a tough jumper over Deng. The Hawks had started center Jason Collins against the Magic to counter Dwight Howard. But they went back to a smaller lineup with Horford at center and Josh Smith at power forward with Marvin Williams at small forward. Later they’d play Teague and Crawford at guard with Johnson at small forward.

It’s generally been a lineup the Bulls have been able to exploit. But Noah wasn’t able to do anything with his size against the smaller Smith, who despite his usual collection of run killing jumpers had two big, late blocks, one on Boozer and a rare one on a Rose drive with 4:28 left and the Bulls down eight.

If not generally regarded as committed or basketball savvy, the Hawks are a far more athletically talented team than the Bulls. And the Bulls Monday could not take advantage of their size and usual offensive execution and defensive hustle to offset the Hawks’ talents. When the Bulls cannot do that with regulars like Boozer, Korver, Bogans and even Deng to an extent, Deng being such a hard worker it masks his athletic deficiencies, the Bulls play to a disadvantage. They will have the MVP, sure, but it has been the greater than the sum of their parts effort that carried them to 62 wins. Not raw talent.

Smith would later find Horford for a dunk coming out of a timeout for a clinching basket at 98-88 with 95 seconds left. Hawks coach Drew, generally dismissed, did a terrific job with that play and a Horford pick and pop out of a third quarter timeout and several nicely spaced timeouts every time the Bulls went into a little run. It helped keep the home crowd unusually quiet and leaving early, a rarity this season.

Heck, the Bulls didn’t score until almost five minutes into the game, down 9-0 to start with Rose scoreless and zero for seven shooting in the first quarter. Deng’s eight points kept the Bulls from being blown away.

The reserves were good to open the second with C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer, of all people, hitting threes to get the team going. The defense cranked up midway through the second quarter, pressuring, finally, and forcing Teague and Smith into turnovers. Pressure and they will come, the turnovers, that is. Korver added a pair of threes and Deng closed with a pair of strong drives and it seemed the Bulls were in position to do the expected down one at halftime.

But the second unit sputtered their next time out to open the fourth as Thibodeau called timeout less than a minute in and subbed Rose. But it was the Hawks—damn it, Scarlett, for the obligatory Gone with the Wind paraphrase—and who were certainly no gentlemen and no appropriate guests.

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