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Bulls get burned in Atlanta
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 23
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The Bulls now can say they’ve only been uncompetitive twice this season. But when they are it really looks bad as the Atlanta Hawks Saturday overwhelmed a seemingly tired and surprisingly casual Bulls team 92-75.
It was the second fewest points the Bulls scored this season, and not exactly against one of the better defensive teams.
It was so bad that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t ever bother to play any starter in the fourth quarter after Atlanta went up by 25 with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
“The first quarter, we’re up 21-17, so I thought we did a good job,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They’re shooting 36 percent. The start of the second quarter they got loose. We couldn’t stop them after that.
“We didn’t execute tonight,” added Thibodeau. “Our defense and our rebounding were both poor. We can’t use being tired as an excuse. They played last night, and they were on the road too. It’s a will game. We just have to play for 48 minutes. Some nights shots won’t fall. But you have to rely on your defense and take care of the ball. When you do that, you give yourself a chance to win. We gave up easy shots, and we didn’t challenge shots. When you don’t do that, when you allow frustration to set in because of a missed shot and you don’t sprint back and protect your basket, you don’t stop the ball and you don’t find your most dangerous guy, then you’re asking for trouble.
The Bulls found that trouble actually after a pretty good first quarter when they led 21-17.
But former teammate Kyle Korver had 13 points with a trio of threes and the Bulls had difficulty containing Al Horford and Josh Smith, who played a lot of effective two-man, high low passing. Horford finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds and Smith added 12. Every Hawks starter was in double figures. Lou Williams going into the starting lineup added 16 points, but perhaps more importantly led the onslaught in the second quarter when the Hawks outscored the Bulls by 20 and took control.
“We had a letdown because we lost,” said Joakim Noah, who had 10 points and nine rebounds and was the only Bull in double figures other than Luol Deng with 11. “One night you come out and play so well and you feel great (after the win in New York Friday), and then the next night you come out with the wrong mindset and don’t play well. The highs and lows are unbelievable. Our energy was bad, and we settled for too many shots early in the clock. When you’re tired, sometimes you just have to move the ball around, and we didn’t do that. We let (the Hawks) play to their strengths. We can’t get too up or too down about the last two days. You just have to learn from the experience and move on from it.”
So it was back to Chicago for the Christmas evening matchup with a hot Houston Rockets team and former Bull Omer Asik.
The Bulls lost in Houston just before Thanksgiving, but it was a close finish. The Bulls had been taking pride in basically only being uncompetitive even without Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton in a loss to the Clippers a month ago.
And they were coming off a strong period with wins over the Celtics, 76ers, Nets and Knicks.
But against an Atlanta team that lost Friday in Philadelphia by 19, the Bulls reached some low points. That Clippers team is a title contender; this Hawks team isn’t.
The Bulls had their fewest number of rebounds in a game this season, outrebounded 45-31 and their fewest number of free throws going six of eight, aggressive neither on the boards or going to the basket.
“We just played with more energy tonight,” said the Hawks’ Williams. “I think that was the main thing. We really didn’t have a different game plan. It was close to being the same game plan (as Friday), but we just played with more energy. It was a different night, that’s all. I’m sure you (reporters) don’t report your best every night. In different games, your body feels different. Your body responds different. Sometimes you travel, sometimes you get an opportunity to sleep in your own bed. Small things like that make a difference.”
Media observer Williams may have hit on something. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I do not take a single paper and find myself better for it.”
For the Hawks, who are third in the East at 16-9 a game and a half ahead of the Bulls at 15-11 and Indiana, it was the big second quarter when they took the spirit out of the Bulls for this game.
It started off well enough with the Bulls hanging onto their lead on a pair of Nate Robinson scores, one a three. But the Bulls, who normally are the overaggressive team, were allowing easy scores they’d usually contest or deny, failing to find shooters like Korver in transition and getting outmuscled inside.
Smith snuck behind a retreating Carlos Boozer on a fast break for a dunk. Korver got out in transition for a three, and the Bulls know how he plays. Williams got running and slam dunked over Kirk Hinrich. The Hawks had eight fast break points in the third quarter to none for the Bulls. Horford stepped outside to shoot, making all five of his attempts in the quarter with Noah closing late and also finishing a lob. Korver ran Marco Belinelli off screens for a third three of the quarter. The Hawks shot 65 percent in the second, breaking from a 31-28 deficit out of a timeout with 7:58 left to outscore the Bulls 25-6 the rest of the quarter. The Bulls contributed seven second quarter turnovers to make it that much more hospitable for Atlanta.
“That was probably one of our most energized wins thus far this year,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “I thought at the very beginning our guys did a really good job, and it started with Jeff Teague and his energy defensively at the very beginning (brother Marquis would get a shot later as Thibodeau tried Marquis and Nate Robinson in the backcourt together to provide a wakeup call). I thought our defense triggered our offense. We were energized defensively, and it carried over right from the other end. Guys were sharp with everything we did. We contested shots and ran. I don’t think they had a fast break basket in the first half, and that was a huge stat. it just seemed like everything we did from a defensive standpoint was right on the mark.”
And not very much the Bulls did made an impact. Though perhaps the big positive was an unusually fast game under two hours with each team not shooting many free throws. The Bulls couldn’t get this one over fast enough.
It was an emotional win in New York Friday for the Bulls, and this sort of thing can happen after games like that and traveling. Though it’s not an explanation that Thibodeau accepts.
But you could see immediately this wasn’t the same Bulls team, even as they led 21-17 after the first quarter. Deng and Taj Gibson were listed as uncertain coming into the game with Deng coming off a shoulder problem in the New York game and Gibson with an ankle issue. Both played and though Deng said it was bothering him some he intended to keep playing. Same with Gibson.
The Hawks were far more aggressive to the boards, which generally is a Bulls strength. The Hawks had a 12-8 edge off the boards in the first quarter and five to one on the offensive boards, including three in one possession.
It was a curious matchup contest with Atlanta a smallish team. They had Williams and Jeff Teague in the backcourt and Korver at small forward. It was somewhat surprising the Bulls didn’t isolate Deng more given Korver was defending him, though Deng did have a respectable six points in the first quarter. Noah defended the more athletic Smith, thus leaving Boozer on Horford. Horford was thus able to step outside and was making his jump shot. Still, the Bulls got a late three from Hinrich and a strong finish to the first quarter behind scores from Deng and Taj Gibson. But even then you could see the ball not moving as much.
The game began to get away in the second quarter when Thibodeau took Noah and Deng out at the same time. Thibodeau got them back in quickly with only two minutes out, but the avalanche was too forceful by then as Noah contributed one of his six turnovers and the Bulls went into the half trailing 53-37. They committed seven turnovers in the second quarter that Atlanta used for 11 points. The Bulls didn’t score off any turnovers in the second and were beaten 8-0 on fast break points. Doing that much watching it was a surprise they weren’t charged for their courtside views.
Though the Hawks deserve credit for a smart game plan against the Bulls. The Hawks were blitzing the Bulls pick and roll, meaning they were double teaming the ballhander coming off the screen and stretching the ball handler out. The Bulls seemed to have a difficult time adjusting and didn’t do a particularly good job throwing to the screener or moving the ball afterward. Instead of the usual Bulls unselfish passing, it seemed like the ball was getting stuck a bit too often, thus giving the Hawks’ defense time to recover. Though perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered in this game as the Hawks kept coming and controlled the rebounding.
Atlanta then busted the game open to start the third. Horford was scoring posting up and stepping back, Smith got over everyone to tip one in and even with some nice driving layups by Hinrich and Marco Belinelli, the Bulls usually formidable defense lacked the usual reaction time and ferocity. After Williams scored on another fast break with 4:13 left in the third and Atlanta ahead 72-47, the Bulls called timeout and Thibodeau tried that small lineup without much success.
The Hawks went into the fourth quarter leading 78-54 with the only curiosity being how Marquis Teague would do against his brother Jeff of the Hawks. Marquis got a bunch of shots off giving them something to remember, if not the Bulls.