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May 11, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Plenty in Reserve

by Bradford Doolittle

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Chicago 95, Atlanta 83 (Chicago leads series 3-2)
Pace: 80.l
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 118.7, Atlanta 103.7

Derrick Rose, defense and depth. Those are the three pillars of the Chicago Bulls' success this season. Nobody ever forgets about Rose. How could they? The defense, as exemplified by the intensity of Tom Thibodeau, is always at the forefront. The depth? That gets left out of the discussion too often. After Tuesday's game, that may have changed.

Thibodeau inserted reserves Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson into a one-point game late in the third quarter. They never returned to the bench. Teaming with Rose and Luol Deng, the reserve brigade carried the Bulls to a 95-83 win in the pivotal game of the second-round series.

"We said all along we're very confident in our bench," said Thibodeau. "Our bench has played very well for us all season long. It's always somebody different. And if somebody is going well, we'll ride that group."

It's a cliche to call the most important game of a series the "pivotal" game. Anyway, that's the first word that came to mind when I was collecting my thoughts beforehand. Game Five. Atlanta at Chicago. Pivotal. And it was. If the Bulls won, they would travel to Atlanta knowing that no matter what happened, the Hawks would not be able to knock them out on the road. The home advantage they worked so hard to obtain in the regular season would be intact. If the Hawks won--and as unpredictable as Larry Drew's team has been, it was impossible to know what to expect--then the Bulls would be one road loss away from elimination. That seems pretty pivotal to me.

The night began with yet another award ceremony. Bulls general manager Gar Forman was honored for his work putting together this team of rising stars. He was named co-winner of the league's Executive of the Year award, sharing the honor with Miami's Pat Riley. At first blush, it seems like what Forman accomplished was more difficult than what Riley pulled off, especially considering the principles in Miami's maneuverings kind of decided on their own to team up. In any event, Miami and Chicago were a lot better this season than they were last season, and both are positioned to remain among the league's elite for the foreseeable future. In about a week, we might see the first chapter in the NBA's next great rivalry.

Forman's boss, Bulls president John Paxson, actually got three votes to finish third in the balloting. In effect, Forman fell victim to a split vote, costing him the award outright. What's odd about that is that the voters for the award are the league's other executives. If anybody would know who is really charge of Chicago's personnel decisions, you'd figure it'd be the other execs. Don't they know who to call? Someone fishing for the rare clever quip from Thibodeau asked before the game about a hypothetical scenario. If he gets conflicting orders from Paxson and Forman, whom does he heed?

"Their message is pretty consistent," Thibodeau said, cracking a reluctant smile. "They got it down pretty good."

Forman made an appearance in the auxiliary press area underneath the stands on the southwest corner of the United Center. It's an all-purpose area that was cloaked with NCAA tools of homogenization during the regionals that were held at the UC in March. Last week, David Stern spoke in that room when he was in town to give the MVP trophy to Rose, flanked by his hand puppet, Adam Silver.

Forman gave a statement, during which he thanked Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf, John Paxson, Tom Thibodeau and his staff, every front office member by name, the PR department (also by name), the business department of the United Center, the players, his family and the ghost of James Naismith. (He did not thank the media.) Forman said that what made this "team award" so meaningful is the fact that it was voted on by his peers. (Though three of those peers apparently don't know who the Bulls' trigger man is. Oh well.) Thibodeau mentioned that one of the things that made him so happy about Forman getting the award is the fact that he's a basketball lifer. He worked in various jobs at various levels, entered the Bulls organization as a team employee and worked his way up. And Thibodeau is right--it's nice lesson for owners who might otherwise be tempted to hand the keys of their team over to the likes of Isiah Thomas.

With that all out of the way, the game began before another amped-up, red-clad crowd at the sold-out United Center. Fifty-three seconds into the game, Deng opened the scoring with a long jumper. It was the start of an opening barrage from Deng, who seems to alternate halves in which he is aggressive. Deng scored the first seven Chicago points before Rose hit a three-pointer on his first shot attempt of the game. Atlanta managed only a Jeff Teague jumper. Drew took an early timeout to curb the momentum, but the Bulls seemed to be off and running. Deng, Rose and Carlos Boozer combined to score the Bulls' first 22 points. Then Keith Bogans--yes, Keith Bogans--reeled off the next eight. Always a bad sign for a Chicago opponent. The Bulls led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter.

"I thought the last few games, I wasn't aggressive to begin with," said Deng. "I just made sure that I was going to come out aggressive and I thought we all did a good job of being aggressive early."

For most of the second quarter, the Bulls were in a kind of maintenance mode, as Thibodeau cycled through his rotation. Chicago still led by nine points late in the period, but a poor finish to the half brought an element of danger to the proceedings. Al Horford was knocking down midrange jumpers, Josh Smith was scoring at the rim and Zaza Pachulia scored 11 points in the half. Atlanta was doing a good job of working the ball inside and cutting along the baseline. The Hawks were 12-of-16 in the paint in the first half and held a 24-22 advantage in the lane--an ongoing theme to this series that would flip and loom large late in the game. Atlanta was 5-of-19 outside the lane, making its shot selection that much more crucial. Despite shooting 17-of-33 from the floor (3-of-6 on threes), the Bulls led just 48-42 at the break. Chicago got just two points from its normally-productive bench, another theme that was about to flip. There was definitely a sense of dread in the arena. The Bulls had once again allowed the Hawks to hang around, turning the second half into a crapshoot.

The Bulls still couldn't shake Atlanta as the third quarter advanced. Deng and Rose were both aggressive out of the chute, but more with the dribble than the pass, stagnating the attack. When Chicago did get close to the rim, the Hawks were effective contesting the shot. The Hawks were using the Bulls' missed shots to fuel their transition game and to get early offense. Teague looked like the most energetic guy on the floor and scored seven quick points to start the half, and Atlanta closed the lead to four. Teague stayed hot, using picks to elude Rose, and scoring on a variety of teardrops and floaters. On the other end, Atlanta's ball denial was very good and Chicago wasn't cutting and moving to combat it. Boozer's work on the glass and Rose's dribble penetration were just enough to keep Chicago in front.

"We felt confident that we [had] weathered the storm," said Horford. "We were down early in the game. We stayed with it."

A mini confrontation broke out midway in the third quarter. Smith broke free for a dunk and hung on the rim to avoid Deng, who had fallen. When Smith finally came down, Boozer punked him in the face with an elbow. Smith pushed Boozer. Boozer yelled at Smith. Deng pulled Boozer away. The officials issued a double technical.

"Sometimes it's just they way the game goes and you lose it," said Deng. "I wanted to hold Booz and make sure nothing really happened."

Smith got the last laugh a few minutes later, when he hit a long two to put Atlanta up 64-63. The teams traded points the rest of the period, then Gibson dribbled up the floor off an inbounds play and set up Brewer for a layup that put the Bulls up 69-68 entering the fourth quarter.

Suffice to say, no one at the UC was feeling too comfortable, but they didn't realize they'd already seen the moves that would decide the game. Asik and Brewer entered the game at the 3:48 mark of the third for Joakim Noah and Bogans. A couple of minutes later, Gibson came on for Boozer. Thibodeau didn't make another substitution until the game was out of reach, when he removed Rose and Deng to mass adoration in the last minute of the contest. The mix-and-match lineup changed the game and, when it was over, allowed the Windy City to blow a collective sigh of relief.

"I have been playing basketball a long time," said Gibson. "Tonight was special, knowing my team was behind me, knowing the city of Chicago was behind me."

The fourth quarter began innocently enough, with Teague driving and hitting a layup high off the glass over Asik. From there on out, points were few and far between for Atlanta. With the defense firing, Rose lifted his game to the level few players can reach. Rose was aggressive throughout the game. That, and a little bit better cooperation with the officials, got Rose 13 foul shots. In the last quarter, however, it wasn't so much Rose getting fouled. You have to catch a guy to foul him, and there was no catching Rose.

"We played with a good pace," said Rose, who has picked up more and more Thibs-speak as the season has progressed. "Off a miss, we pushed the ball. On the offensive end, we made sure guys were in their lanes and executing our plays."

Rose started by answering Teague's circus shot over Asik, beating him back down the floor for a layup before the Atlanta defense could get set. The next two times down, Rose drove and dished, first to Deng for a layup, then to Gibson for a three-point play. That put the Bulls up by six and drove the energy in the arena to a feverish level. That was the key moment in the game, where I jotted down that this was the moment in which the Hawks could finally break. But would they?

"In the fourth quarter, I think we completely lost our composure," said Drew. "I told our guys a bad shot is just as [bad] as a turnover. In the fourth quarter, we did not do a good job of executing our offense."

To me, Atlanta didn't fold down the stretch so much as the Bulls took the game away from the Hawks. Asik and Gibson locked down the paint on defense. The paint advantage that had surprisingly gone the Hawks' way for much of the series disappeared; Chicago outscored the Hawks 18-6 in the lane in the fourth. Once, out of a break, Drew drew up an isolation for Horford against Asik. You can't do that. Asik moves extremely well on defense for a player his size, a quality which combined with his length could eventually make him an All-Defense type of a player, if he gets enough minutes and adds strength. As Horford tried unsuccessfully to shake Asik, Deng moved over for a well-timed trap, and Horford threw the ball away to Brewer. Meanwhile, Rose was going to the rim every time, looking for cutters, shooters, layups, fouls--whatever bounty Atlanta's defense yielded, Rose was there to partake.

"They just made more plays down the stretch," said Horford. "They were more aggressive going to the basket. That is something we need to do more instead of settling for jump shots.

When Thibodeau finds a lineup that is working, he sticks with it, which is a pleasant change of pace from most coaches. He gave no court time in the second half to Kyle Korver, who didn't get a shot in 4:18 of play. I called Korver the bellwether player in this game. I was way off. Thibodeau has plenty of options, so why force a player into a bad matchup, especially when the unit on the floor is taking the game way from the opponent?

The most illustrative play of the quarter: Deng found himself isolated on Johnson on the side. Rather than digging in to react to Johnson's move, Deng rushed right into him, smothering him, and when Johnson tried to swing the ball to create some space, Deng literally just grabbed it away from him. The ball ended up popping loose and bouncing off of Johnson out of bounds. Deng flexed his arms as he walked down the court, a rare display of emotion for the normally ponderous forward. He earned his right to the outburst. What he didn't "earn" was a spot on the All-Defense teams that were announced on Monday, a gross oversight.

"I don't know how I really feel about that yet," said Deng. "I really did focus a lot on defense this year. ... It's really fine by me. I think right now there's only one thing on my mind."

The Bulls finally broke the Hawks with about three minutes to play, thanks to a flourish by Gibson, who scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter. The Bulls outscored Atlanta 26-15 in the last period, held the Hawks to 5-of-16 shooting and forced five turnovers leading to eight points.

"This is the playoffs, so you're going to be in tight quarters," said Thibodeau. "You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Now the question becomes whether the Bulls can sustain the momentum going into Game Six in Atlanta. We've seen some breathtaking displays of pure will by Chicago in this series. But we've also seen some puzzling stretches when the Bulls seem uncertain and reactive. With Miami set to close out Boston, the Bulls can't afford to let this series drag out. Can they use their fourth quarter surge as a springboard?

"Every game is a story unto itself," said Thibodeau. "If you're looking ahead or looking back, you're not focusing on what you need to, which is what is right in front to you."

Whatever happens, you figure it's going to take a total team effort for Chicago to close out Atlanta. Rose can't do it on his own, not at this time of the year.

"Coach said we have to walk through the fire together," said Rose. "Every series has tested us in every way. We are sticking together."

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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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