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May 5, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Bulls Get Even

by Bradford Doolittle


at Chicago 86, Atlanta 73 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 87.1
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 98.7, Atlanta 83.8

CHICAGO | It wasn't Picasso or a Renoir. It wasn't a Monet or even a Manet. It was more a Pollock or a Kooning--hard to look at, but a work of something. Some might even call it art. The Bulls will take it, that Wednesday's slug-it-out win over Atlanta was no masterpiece. One way or another, they had to get a victory. Nothing else mattered. The Bulls got back to playing Thibodeauesque defense, holding the Hawks to the lowest Offensive Rating a team has put up so far in the postseason, and now head to Atlanta to restore order to a series that all evidence suggests they should dominate.

DATE  TEAM                 DRTG   TEAM             DRTG
5/4   bulls,chicago_opp    83.8   magic,orlando   100.7
4/18  heat,miami_opp       85.7   bulls,chicago   101.6
4/26  magic,orlando_opp    88.0   heat,miami      102.0
4/24  celtics,boston_opp   91.8   hawks,atlanta   103.5
4/20  spurs,sanantonio_opp 92.1   celtics,boston  104.4

With one game, the Bulls have improved their postseason defensive efficiency to the haughty level Thibodeau reached in the regular season.

"It was better," Thibodeau said of his team's defense. "We still have some things we have to clean up. Our finishing the quarters was still a little loose."

Thibodeau will say something like that in the postgame press conference after the Bulls win the NBA title, if they get there. It's just the way he is. He's not a negative guy, just a hellbent maniac hooked on the notion on perfection. It's what makes him a great coach, but I'd hate to be the guy's housekeeper.

The Bulls punished the Hawks on the defensive end, holding them to a .357 eFG% (23-of-64 on twos; 3-of-13 on threes) and grabbed 81.5 percent of available defensive rebounds. Contest shots, give the shooters no quarter, deny all entry into the lane and finish possessions--that was vintage Chicago Bulls basketball. After the game, someone in my Twitter stream mentioned that it felt like the Hawks had lost by 10 points rather than the Bulls had won by 10 points, and even attributed the genesis of that quote to me. I didn't write that. I don't believe it, either. The Bulls were ragged on the offensive end, a troubling trend, but they took that game from the Hawks, covering their faces with the proverbial pillow and not letting up.

Or did they? Here's Larry Drew after the game:

"I didn't see much different from them from Game One. They played us tough and physical just as in that first game. We just did a poor job with our shot selection. That was our undoing."

Drew must have learned the art of denial from Monty Python's Black Knight, because that's not what I saw. Sure, plenty of Atlanta's looks were poor shots, but that was because Chicago gave them nothing but bad shots from which to choose. In the first game, the Bulls ran Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng at Joe Johnson. Johnson had a fascinating game, working off the ball almost as the secondary option on most sets, bailing out possession after possession when the first option was denied. Bogans did a fair job of sticking with him, but lacks the size to disrupt Johnson's rhythm once he establishes it. Brewer was thoroughly abused by Johnson, constantly getting hung up on picks and getting out of position on ball reversals. Deng was the best of the three, forcing Johnson into a lot of very tough shots. Johnson made them, though, and that's going to happen.

On Wednesday, those three and even Kyle Korver all had their shots at Johnson in the first half. Bogans did a better job of denying Johnson the ball, sticking with him when the ball was on the strong side, even though the Bulls' blueprint is to sag into the middle, then recover to contest. Nice adjustment by Thibodeau. Brewer only got a couple of possessions against Johnson, so that was another adjustment. Korver had one trip against him that I noticed and actually did a nice job. However, in the second half, it was Deng that stuck with Johnson and repelled the latter's attempt to take over the game in the fourth quarter. Deng was fantastic, using his length to keep Johnson from getting clean looks, moving his feet and keeping Johnson out of the middle and denying attempts at skip passes.

"You can't say enough about Luol, you guys all know that," Thibodeau said, prompted by my plea to say something about Deng. "Every night he gets big rebounds for us. He got us a big bucket late in the game. He provides great leadership. He plays hard every minute he is out there. He is clutch."

The Hawks will have to adjust, because it's apparent to me that Deng can man up on Johnson just fine, with just a little help from the defenders behind him. Perhaps Drew can get the ball to Johnson in the middle of the floor more often, where he'd have more options with which to work.

"I think I was just more into him tonight," Deng said. "The other day I thought I played good defense, but he's such a good player and he made some tough shots."

The defense on Jamal Crawford was also better in Game Two, and again it came down to ball denial. Crawford had to work to get the ball and once he did, the Bulls were overplaying his shooting hand and crowding him on the perimeter, forcing him to drive the ball to his left. Crawford shot 2-of-10 in the game. That was a group effort--Derrick Rose, C.J. Watson, Brewer and Korver all got their shots.

One Hawk did rise to the occasion in Game Two: Jeff Teague. Teague scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting. He shot the ball with confidence and was aggressive off the dribble when it was appropriate. He initiated the offense all night and didn't commit a turnover in 40 minutes of court time. The confidence with which he played put the Bulls in a defensive quandary. Drew played Teague and Crawford in the backcourt and moved Johnson to the three. That always left a Bull, usually Korver, defending Teague with feet too slow for a player that quick. Atlanta wasn't able to leverage that into anything substantial, but it is something to watch for in Game Three.

"I'm very proud of him," Drew said about Teague. "I've always believed in this kid. I've always said he has something special."

Well, okay, but that admiration didn't stop Drew from giving the starting point guard spot to Mike Bibby in the preseason. It didn't stop Drew from playing Teague less than 14 minutes per game during the regular season. It didn't stop Hawks general manager Rick Sund from trading for Kirk Hinrich at the trade deadline. I asked Teague about having the chance in this series to put his name on the NBA map. I perhaps should have asked him about putting himself on the map of his own team.

"I think they probably underestimated me because I haven't played a lot this season," said Teague. "Opportunity comes and you have to try to step up and seize the moment."

Joakim Noah seized the moment on Wednesday. One of the keys to my pre-series prediction (Bulls in four) was that Chicago absolutely hammered the Hawks on the boards in the regular season. I couldn't see that changing, yet the Hawks battled Chicago to a stalemate on the glass in Game One. Wednesday's rebound differential (58-39) is much more what I expected.

"They made a more assertive effort to get to the offensive glass," said Drew. "We should have expected that and we talked about it coming into this game. You have to expect pushing and grabbing under the basket. That's playoff basketball. We didn't respond to it well and let them have their way in there."

Noah led the charge with a relentless assault on the offensive glass. He was the player of the game overall, getting 19 points and 14 rebounds (7 offensive), holding Al Horford to 3-of-12 shooting, playing sterling help defense that kept the Hawks from taking advantage of the Bulls' extended defense and was even Chicago's best post-up option with a diminished Carlos Boozer struggling to get clean looks. It was the kind of blood-and-guts performance that has endeared Noah in the hearts of United Center fans.

"I feel like I played with passion the first game," said Noah. "We just didn't win."

Noah also came to the defense of Boozer, who was the target of more than a few boo-birds during Wednesday's game, and they weren't saying, "BOOOO-zer." Boozer just doesn't have any lift in his legs right now as he battles turf toe and the langor caused by being held out of practice. Boozer played hard, grabbing 11 rebounds, but just is not a factor on post-ups, not when he's going against Horford and Josh Smith. Boozer's four baskets all were set up by Rose. Of his eight misses, four were rejected, leading to Atlanta runouts. Late in the game, Thibodeau pulled Boozer in favor of Taj Gibson.

Let's not overlook Atlanta's performance on the defensive end, which kept the Hawks in the game well into the fourth quarter, though the Bulls always had them at arm's length. They did a great job of keeping Rose out of the lane, especially in the halfcourt once the defense was set. Teague was playing off of Rose and going under on screens. Rose was a little passive, shooting 1-of-8 from three-point range, and getting just six free-throw attempts, which at least were six more than he got in Game One. Thibodeau and Rose both deny that the MVP's gimpy ankle is a factor. I can't prove that it is. I just know that Rose was missing his jumpers short. When he misses, he tends to do that, but last night the misses were really short. And there was one possession in the fourth when Rose ended up with the ball on the wing after a reversal and found himself isolated on Teague. Teague was on an island--no help was behind him. Rose surveyed the situation for a moment then without taking a dribble, launched an unsuccessful three-pointer. Something just wasn't right about that.

"We have to play with more pace," said Thibodeau. "When we can get Derrick into the open floor, he has more scenes where he can get to the rim."

Yes! Pace! That's what I'm saying. However, pace isn't just about forcing transition opportunities. It's also about getting into the offense quickly and being aggressive before the Atlanta defense drops anchor. There is always a few seconds on every possession, even if the fastbreak isn't there, when defenders are scrambling to find their man and are getting hunkered down for whatever set the offense is going to run. Thibodeau often calls plays from the sideline; Rose then relays it to the rest of the team. By then, ten seconds are gone on the shot clock. I'd like to see more halfcourt possessions when Rose attacks early, probes the defense, and reads what is available. I think right now, he's too quick to pull the ball out and go into the playbook.

"We need to execute more," said Rose. "We're having trouble with that. On the road, things are going to change. We've been in that position a hundred times. We just have to keep balling, things have to change. We just have to make it harder for them."

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Regular-Season Masters (05/05)
<< Previous Column
Playoff Prospectus (05/04)
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Playoff Prospectus (05/05)
Next Article >>
Playoff Prospectus (05/05)

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