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Bulls send the Hawks to historic defeat
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 15
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Joakim Noah is not a morning person. You, of course, can just about tell by his looks. But really, few in the NBA are. After all, they really are second shift workers, needing to be at their best around 9 p.m. So 9 a.m. is a bit early for a lot of noise to say nothing about adjectives.
But that’s what the Bulls players heard Monday morning when they first gathered after Saturday’s disappointing loss which left the Bulls a curious 10-10 at home. The message came from coach Tom Thibodeau, both colorfully and at an increased decibel, and it led to a one of the most historic mismatches in NBA history in the Bulls’ 97-58 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks scored the second fewest points in a half in league history, 20, as the Bulls led 48-20 at halftime. The Bulls set a franchise record for fewest points allowed, 58, and fewest points in a half with 20. It was the fewest points a Hawks team has scored since they played in Milwaukee. The Hawks 20.5 percent first half shooting was a Bulls franchise best and the Hawks’ five points in the second quarter (two of 21 shooting for 9.5 percent) tied a Bulls franchise record. The win enabled the Bulls at 21-15 to climb past the slumping Hawks in the East standings.
“Thibs screaming at us early in the morning,” nodded Noah, who had nine points and a dominating 16 rebounds. “He was screaming.”
Why? It was that 10-10 home record and losses to league bottom dwellers like the Suns Saturday and previously Charlotte and New Orleans. How could a team beat Miami and New York on the road within a week as the Bulls had, and then come home like that?
“I knew what was coming,” said Taj Gibson, who had five blocks and the monster dunk of the night in the fourth with the Bulls up 30. The Bulls led by at least 20 and as many as 44 since late in the second quarter.
“As soon as walk through,” added Gibson. “His face, the tension, looking everyone in the eye. He was raging this morning. Really got into us. It was crazy how much he was yelling with so much passion and so much understanding of what it takes to be the best.”
So Thibodeau, as you might expect, had gone through every one of those 10 home losses and prepared the response. And when the players came to the Berto Center Monday morning, he was ready.
“It’s not fun to be screamed at 9 o’clock in the morning,” Noah said with a sly smile. “Anyway, we got it done.”
So what was he so mad about?
“That we were 10-10 at home,” Noah added with a bit of a “duh” look.
“A lot of f-bombs this morning,” Noah added.
“Right?” he said turning to Richard Hamilton dressing a few feet away.
“All day,” said Hamilton, which is his favorite expression for acknowledgement. Boozer’s is “holdat,” which several players now use and which seems to stand for similar expressions
“Grown men being cursed at,” Noah said shaking his head and smiling.
And then grown men going out to play a kids game and acting very mature.
“Nobody was joking around here today,” said Gibson. “Everybody was serious about what they needed to do. Nobody said a word. Everybody was ready to go. It was defensive transition. We ran back hard. It was the best I’ve seen our defensive transition all year. We were flying back on D and getting stops. They were frustrated. It’s one game. We hope we can build off it. We don’t have Derrick (Rose), the guy who comes in with three minutes left and takes the big time shots. So we have to push and play hard every game.”
It’s what this Bulls team under Thibodeau has been known for doing. That’s no secret. Which is also no secret why this Bulls team could rank among the league’s best on the road and among the poorest in the East while playing at home. It’s because this team with its talent cannot take a breath. There’s really no clear out player to finish and score when everyone else stumbles. It’s that small margin of error. It’s not to say there isn’t talent, but it’s basically complementary talent without Rose. Though Carlos Boozer had his eighth double-double in the last nine games as he leads the East in double-doubles and certainly should be considered for the All-Star team. Still, this group of Bulls players has to play off one another, set the hard screens, make the sharp cuts, move the ball for the easier shot instead of creating the great shot.
On the road, it’s really not that difficult. A team knows it has to do more to compete. The calls only go your way when you play hard. But then you come home and there is a tendency to relax. The NBA is an energy game. It’s why, not because the officials are biased, the home team generally gets more foul calls. An enthusiastic home crowd does tend to push players to compete harder. The aggressor gets the calls. So the Bulls have relaxed a bit at times at home, and given the kind of talent this Bulls team has they cannot afford to take a breath anywhere if they want to win. They can’t take their feet off the gas at home and still find the finish line first, which is what Thibodeau emphasizes.
It’s quaint in a way, but essential for this team without Rose. And someone like Kyle Korver understands. Korver starts at small forward for the Hawks and was one of the few Hawks players Monday who were competing. He had nine points as the Hawks were led by Mike Scott off the bench with 10. I know. I have no idea who he is, either.
Though Korver said he’s enjoyed his time with the Hawks, which also has given him more playing time, he had fond memories of playing for the Bulls. Though he did add one of the big differences was Sunday and Monday were the first two days of the year he had to wear a coat outside.
“We had 14, 15 guys, whatever, who left it all on the court every practice, every game,” said Korver. “You walk into the arena and you can feel proud of that. I’ve never been on a team that played as hard every single night as we did last year.
“Sometimes,” Korver went on with that knowing smile, “you’re like, ‘Man, we’ve got to do closeouts again?’ It’s Cleveland, it’s 20 degree in the arena (for practice). But you can’t argue with the final result. Thibs is a great coach. He’s a very demanding coach. He couldn’t coach every team. A lot of guys can’t take it. They have a lot of guys who can and that’s what makes them special. And they keep finding guys who will. If you have guys who buy in, you’re going to play great defense, you’re going to grind every night and that gets you far in this league. They play hard. They still have pieces who can score. They don’t have the flashy plays Derrick brought. But solid basketball in the NBA still gets you wins.”
Which basically was Thibodeau’s point to the team, if expressed with a bit more color and volume: You have to compete as hard as you can all the time because we don’t have someone to save you when you don’t. It’s no mystery, but it’s also not easy. It requires work, it requires, as Thibodeau likes to emphasize, doing your job relentlessly.
The Bulls did Monday, though it was more a perfect storm of a hurricane of Bulls enthusiasm meeting a low of Hawks indifference.
“This was a very, very embarrassing,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “We have lost all sense of team on both ends of the floor. Why that has happened, I really can’t put my finger on it. We have lost that sense of trust for one another. I will say, it’s time that we do shake things up. There will be some changes. We have to find a group that will compete on both ends at a high level with no excuses, with no finger-pointing as far as blaming officials, blaming each other. We need to shake things up and that will be the first line of business when we get back to Atlanta is to make some changes within our lineup.”
The Bulls were very good, certainly, Boozer with 20 points and 13 rebounds, Luol Deng with 18 points, the team outrebounding the Hawks by 20, blocking 13 shots, Nate Robinson equaling Gibson with seven rebounds and Kirk Hinrich ready to go after Devin Harris after a hard, flagrant foul and being restrained by Noah. Josh Smith, demonstrating why he doesn’t get added to All-Star teams, drew a technical for firing a ball at the official after a half dozen sequences not running back on defense, the Hawks getting an over and back backcourt turnover on an inbounds play. Atlanta went more than 13 minutes in one first half stretch without scoring, missing 19 shots with 11 turnovers. The Bulls had more rebounds than Atlanta had points, whatever that means. It doesn’t seem strange they’ve lost six of seven; it’s more how they won 20 of their first 30.
“They just got into us and stopped everything,” said Jeff Teague, who played against his brother Marquis late in the game. “They clogged the lane, contested J’s and we just did not do a good job responding.”
Or any real job at all.
This one was over quickly as the Bulls took a 26-15 lead in the first quarter and didn’t even look to take advantage of the Hawks immediately. While Korver is a better defender than he gets credit for, the Bulls had a mismatch with Korver trying to defend Deng. But it was more than halfway into the quarter before the Bulls isolated Deng on Korver, Deng scoring twice and Drew going to the bench with the Bulls ahead 22-13. The Hawks opened with two point guards, Teague and Devin Harris, the latter thrown into a frenzy by Hamilton’s physical play later in the game and taking it out with a cheap shot on Hinrich.
“I was going up and he gave me a shot,” said Hinrich with a shrug. “I know him and Rip had something going and he was upset. Just an initial reaction by me. There wasn’t going to be a fight.”
Mostly because the Hawks seemed pretty satisfied to just take most of the punishment.
Though it didn’t really factor into the game, I loved watching Deng early in the game. Waiting for the Hawks to shoot free throws, he was dribbling the ball with his feet like a soccer player and as Korver went to the line Deng lifted the ball with his right foot and lobbed it to the official for Korver to shoot. It looked like Tiger Woods in that commercial years back when he kept the golf ball bouncing on his club about 50 times. Yes, these guys are good, as the NBA ad says.
Though perhaps that also was a symbol of the Bulls’ confidence. They were not letting another home game get away.
“Well, we played defense,” said Thibodeau of the change from Saturday’s loss to the Suns. “The two things go hand in hand. We have to be well balanced, shot selection and floor balance, and effort to get back. The two things that kill team spirit more than anything else are shot selection, and one-on-one play and the lack of effort getting back (that’s three, but Thibs was on a roll). The two things that help build team spirit is when we are moving the ball, sharing the ball and playing together (yes, three again). When we do that and make the extra pass, there is a willingness to get back and help your teammate, being tied together. I thought we did those things and played tonight with a lot more mental and physical toughness. We are playing shorthanded. So we have to play with great intensity all the time. You can’t relax, never exhale. We have to grind and fight. We have to do it day after day.”
This time the Bulls did. Boozer was one rebound short of half way to a double-double in the first quarter. The Bulls were all over the place, Deng blocking an Ivan Johnson layup attempt, Gibson tipping in a Boozer miss, Boozer faking a hand off and going strong for a score.
“The mark of a good team,” said Boozer, now averaging 15.5 points and 9.7 rebounds in about 30 minutes per game, “is to use each other and play together. We’ve got a great one-on-one player in D. Rose. He’ll be back, and when he gets back the rest of us have to use each other and things will happen offensively and defensively.”
And then it was over in an amazingly inept second quarter for the Hawks as the Bulls helped their frustration along.
Gibson had another block on the burly Johnson, Robinson ran the court for a pair of layups and hit a three. I know Robinson gets criticism for his curious shot selection at times. But he is a truly amazing rebounder for a guy basically shorter than me and he goes full court with the ball as well as anyone perhaps other than Rose.
Rose, by the way, was shooting for a long stretch before the game and I assume he remains listed as month to month.
“They still run the same system,” said Korver, “the same plays. They’re still a grind it out team. But they’re going to be a force in the end. When Derrick comes back and you are good defensively makes them really a tough team.”
But you do have to give it to Thibodeau as a coach who can get a team ready to play. Yes, it’s just the regular season, but I also believe in building habits. I thought it was encouraging for the Bulls that they know they can come out with big efforts. It was 48-20 at halftime in a score you’d more expect with some eighth grade AAU team running it up. The Hawks were 20.5 percent first half shooting and you could see how little they cared.
“The really disturbing thing was the lack of effort,” repeated Drew. “Effort is something you have to bring. It is not coached.”
Or, at least, you shouldn’t have to.
The Bulls shot 33 percent in the third quarter and continued to pile it on.
There was that flagrant on Hinrich earlier, which should have led to an ejection. But the officials curiously called an offensive foul on Hamilton as Hinrich was making the shot. Harris basically hit Hinrich while Hinrich was in the air. It became a flagrant one, which enabled Harris to remain in the game. Which wasn’t that good for the Hawks, anyway.
Deng made a three, Hamilton went full court for a score, Deng was on the boards drawing fouls. The Hawks were fronting and the Bulls kept throwing over the top for easy scores. The Bulls led 71-37 after three and weren’t blowing this lead, certainly not to this Hawks team.
Early in the fourth, Jimmy Butler, who had another strong hustling all around game, rebounded a Hawks miss and basically handed it to Gibson for the booming slam dunk. Gibson dunked also on the Bulls next possession and the Hawks players began looking for small change as tips to get their checked coats.
“I think our mindset was good tonight,” said Noah. “Everybody was on edge. Everybody was focused at the start. To me, what’s going to be interesting the rest of the way is just to see how we deal with playing at home when things aren’t going our way. When things aren’t going our way how do we react to not hitting shots? We have to play together. When we play together I feel like we’re very tough to beat.”
No matter the time of day or night.