Previous ArticlesEastern Conference playoffs suddenly wide open
Bulls ground the Hawks behind Augustin’s 23
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 3
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There didn’t seem anything extraordinary in the Bulls’ 105-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, a sweep of the season series that was the Bulls’ fifth win in their last six to move to a season best 43-32.
The Bulls still remain tied with Toronto for third in the Eastern Conference and two and a half games ahead of fifth place Brooklyn.
“We’re just trying to play good basketball,” said Joakim Noah who had 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to support top scorers D.J. Augustin with 23 and Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler with 17 each. “There’s no way in hell we are going to try to lose games to matchup with anybody. Whatever happens happens. We’re just going to keep playing our game. Keep winning as much as we can and then I can’t wait for the playoffs. Losing games to try to play someone is soft; that’s soft.”
These Bulls will never be labeled soft, though rarely confused with a highlight film. They are known to wear opponents down, grind, as the basketball talk goes, make plays and relentlessly hit the boards.
That latter part hasn’t always been there of late, though the Bulls had an efficient game Wednesday with 51.3 percent shooting against an Atlanta team now tied for the last playoff spot in the East with the Knicks. The Bulls were sharp with 27 assists on 40 field goals and matching a season best with 13 steals.
But if there’s not take-your-breath-away specials in a Bulls game, there’s certainly beauty for the lover of the game. There’s beauty in life in the most unexpected places, in spirituality, in emotion, in Augustin recognizing a Butler mismatch and throwing over the top as Butler seals his man for an easy score.
That particular one kept the Bulls ahead late in the second quarter, and though the Hawks would periodically threaten in the second half, the Bulls inevitably would pull away each time with the most fundamental of actions.
Like Carlos Boozer digging out interior space coming out of a timeout for an easy score on the inbounds pass after the Hawks pulled within 60-57 early in the third quarter; like earlier when Augustin ball faked to draw the defense and fired into the corner for a Mike Dunleavy three; or Hinrich driving in, kicking the ball to Dunleavy who then wheeled it out to Butler for a better open three; or when Butler early in the fourth quarter dropped in a pass to a diving Noah for a score; or Taj Gibson with one of his regular power dunks as Noah drew the defense with a move and laid the ball off to Gibson.
These are the subtle beauties of the game, more common and familiar to the Bulls now in playing their best of the season. They aren’t always particularly dominating wins or games that leave you mesmerized with the memories, though Augustin did have a few drives that sparked behind Rose-colored glasses.
They are the games of men at work, which the Bulls have been the last month or so with a solid, reliable rotation, good health with their main players and a growing comfort in their actions and reactions, that when someone wants to make the pass the other guy is ready and waiting.
It might not be a game that draws a nickname, but it’s fulfilling to watch and even more so to play.
“Know what your opponent is trying to do, recognize what’s going on in the game,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who got his 200th win as Bulls coach. “Are they trying to trap to get the ball out of D.J.’s hands? What are the counters? What are we trying to get to? There’s a lot going on: Who has a hot hand? Who has a good matchup? Who’s in foul trouble? That’s some of the value of having two point guards (Augustin and Hinrich). It gives you an advantage from that standpoint for what is going on in the game.”
It’s both clinic and clinical.
That Hinrich/Augustin duo has been integral in the fourth quarter when Thibodeau goes with Noah, Gibson and Butler in a quintet that has been the Bulls strength going down the stretch in games. Augustin even has emerged as the team’s leading scorer with Derrick Rose out and Luol Deng traded.
That tight rotation has held leads and made comebacks with all the elements that Thibodeau emphasizes each day and these players produce on the court. It may be repetitive for them, but those habits are what lead to success.
“They complement each other well; the ball moves well,” said Thibodeau about the Fourth Quarter Fab Five. “The group functions well together. You have shot makers, guys who can break you down off the dribble. Taj gives us a post presence, Jo gives us an active big in the middle of the floor and defensively they are very good together.”
It’s the alchemy from the Thibs lab that has suddenly made the Bulls an intriguing playoff threat.
Everyone knows their defense with their big men inside, but also players like Noah and Gibson who can switch and defend the trickiest guards and Butler who can match the league’s top scorers. And there’s been a developing offensive element—the Bulls making 12 of 25 threes Wednesday—with Augustin again having a big scoring game after a career high 33 points earlier this week.
“D.J. Augustin is having a heck of a year,” marveled Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. “They do things for him. They set a lot of screens for him. There were a couple of times where we lost track of him a little bit. A couple of times he made tough plays and tough shots. That’s what he’s been doing all year. Look at a Chicago boxscore and Augustin’s got 33, Augustin’s got 30 or 28. He’s been a huge boost for them. Tonight was very similar. We gave him a lot of attention.”
Not enough. The hawks got 22 points and 11 rebounds from Paul Millsap and 21 points and eight assists from Jeff Teague. Kyle Korver was four of six on threes and Elton Brand started the second half at center and shot four of five. And then they tried to stop Augustin.
And still Augustin was special, pump faking his way into early three-point plays after Atlanta led 40-35 early in the second quarter, Augsutin’s 14 second quarter points punctuated with a Magic Johnson-like ball fake, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t drive, show and then score that rallied the Bulls from a loose 31-31 first quarter to a 57-49 halftime lead, after which the Bulls never trailed.
Thibodeau didn’t hesitate on what it meant.
“He’s been terrific,” Thibodeau said about Augustin. “He’s saved our season. He’s a big shot maker; he made big plays. Not only his shooting, his playmaking. If you trap him, he’ll hit the open man. Looking at the ball movement, 27 assists, low turnovers (13). D.J. can beat you a lot of different ways. Beat you with the shot, beat you with the pass, beat you with his penetration. It’s a big plus having him. He’s a great shooter and has hit a lot of big shots.”
Augustin was four of eight on threes while Butler was three of eight and Tony Snell added two with Butler in early foul trouble. It’s made the humble Augustin one of the surprising stories of the league. Not only to find a place in a rotation after being released but to become such an invaluable component.
Usually grim faced and unemotional, even Augustin has been feeling the thrill of the chase Wednesday with a couple of exuberant gestures to the crowd, albeit sparse, one a fist pump on a three-point play late in the third quarter to make it 76-70 Bulls and performing a little bunny hop with a pull up three to effectively put it away at 96-87 with just over three minutes left.
“Especially when you have a guy like Joakim in the huddle getting you hyped, you have no choice but to be the same way,” said Augustin.
“I don’t really pay attention to things like that even though he is my coach and he’s making that comment,” Augustin added about Thibodeau’s remark of saving the season. “It’s a great thing to hear. But at the same time I don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff. These guys are a great team without me, and I’m just trying to come in and do my part.”
Augustin has done that and more, though in concert with the basketball orchestra of the Bulls. He’s hit some high notes, but he knows there’s no meaningful sound without everyone performing together.
Noah got on himself a little bit, which also shows the discipline and maturity of the group. He argued with the officials a few times, though didn’t get called for a technical. Still, he was apologetic.
“It was a good win for us,” said Noah. “But I’ve got to do a better job sometimes during the game of keeping my composure. That’s important, especially down the stretch. I feel there were times I was out of control tonight.”
Not necessarily to the casual observer, though that is the beauty of what the Bulls have going now. They’re playing together, playing as one and playing for all. It’s been a ball.