CHICAGO | When I watched the Hawks and Bulls square off on Monday at the United Center, I couldn't help but wonder if I was watching the tipping point of the Bulls' season. Chicago spent half its campaign overcoming a poor start, but managed to get four games above .500 by the last week of February. The Bulls' supporting numbers didn't quite justify that lofty record--lofty when you were once seven games under.500--but from a talent standpoint, the Bulls had merely gotten to where they should have been in the first place. Now beset with injuries, the Bulls just may not have the bodies they need in the five-team race for the last four spots in the East playoff bracket.
In Atlanta, the Bulls were facing a team which could be its eventual first-round opponent in the postseason, whether its a four-five or a three-six matchup. The Hawks have steadfastly remained in a three-way battle for the No. 2 seed in the East, thanks to a core group that has grown up together over the last four seasons, plus a new sixth man in Jamal Crawford who is playing the best ball of his career.
My takeaways from Monday's game:
1. Hawks trust each other.
When Atlanta broke its playoff drought two years ago, not much thought was given to the Hawks as they entered their playoff series against the powerful Celtics, but it was that epic seven-game series which put this version of the Hawks on the map. If you think back to that matchup, the Hawks were able to push Boston to the limit largely because of incredible one-on-one offensive basketball from Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, or at least that's my enduring image from that series. Now, though, the Hawks have morphed into a balanced team that shares the ball as well as any team in the NBA. To a man, Mike Woodson's players are willing to defer to teammates who have a better look and the result is a squad that has improved its Offensive Rating by 8.7 points in three years. Smith has been a big part of that transition, if you want to call it that. Not only has his shot selection improved more than any player that I can remember, but his assist rate remains at a career-high level. Atlanta has become a fun team to watch, if you're a purist who loves unselfish basketball.
Crawford's case is particularly interesting. His assist rate is at a career low. His usage rate is stable, but his True Shooting Percentage is the best it's been in his 10 NBA seasons. He has been put in a situation where he can focus on his strengths and his teammates seem to recognize his strong points as well as he does. We've noted how the Hawks were underappreciated in our preseason projections, and this continued improvement towards offensive efficiency is a big reason why. Is there something that happens when a group plays together for a certain length of time that can be measured? It's tough to quantify the development of a team like the Hawks. Core players can perform together for years and not develop this kind of synergy. And as for that aforementioned Celtics team, they, too, were elite sharers of the basketball. And they became that way in their very first year of playing together.
2. Hawks can rebound.
While a huge factor in the Hawks' offensive standing is a league-best turnover rate, don't overlook their return to prominence in the offensive rebounding pecking order. The younger version of this team was in the top five in offensive rebound percentage in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Last season, however, as Josh Smith battled physical problems, Atlanta slipped to 19th off the offensive glass. Monday's result (22 offensive rebounds) was an outlier, but Atlanta has still improved to 11th in offensive rebound percentage. Smith, who had six of his 18 boards on Monday on the offensive end, has grabbed a career-best 8.9 percent of his team's misses, another aspect of his amazing ability to refocus his game on the things he does best.
3. Can Hawks travel?
I noticed that the Hawks were 14-14 on the road entering Monday's game, the worst away record among the top four teams in the East. It got me to wondering if there is a limited ceiling for teams that don't post a winning record on the road come playoff time. Well, entering this season, there have been 682 teams that have finished under .500 on the road since the ABA-NBA merger. Two of those teams won the NBA championship--the '77 Blazers and the '78 Bullets. However, there are caveats in those cases. In the 1976-77 season, there wasn't a single NBA team that had a winning road record. The next year, only Portland was over .500 away from home and its season was wrecked by Bill Walton's injury three-fourths of the way through the campaign. Winning on the road was simply more difficult back then.
Decade Road% %Teams>.500
1970s .330 9.1
1980s .353 17.4
1990s .389 26.8
2000s .396 24.3
Anyhow, back to the Hawks. Fourteen teams since the merger have made it to the Finals with a sub-.500 road record. Three of them came in the current decade. Two of those were the Nets' Finals entrants; the last was the 2006-07 Cavaliers. After winning Monday, the Hawks are 15-14 away from Atlanta. Dipping under .500 doesn't necessarily limit the Hawks' ceiling. However, Atlanta fans should root hard for their team when they aren't at home. Just to be safe.
4. Chicago loves Joe Johnson.
I picked up a ton of pro-Joe Johnson vibes from both fans and fellow media alike Monday. This tells me a couple of things. First, there is a prevailing feeling, probably an appropriate one, that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James aren't coming to Chicago. Second, people are dazzled by the Hawks' success and the solid play of Johnson, who is admittedly at his career peak and playing at an All-Star level for the most part. There is going to be a team that overpays for Johnson this summer and regrets it. If you don't believe me, then check out the sobering numbers from Kevin Pelton's 2010 free agency series. That's going to be a contract with an unhappy ending.
5. Battered Bulls.
The result on the boards wasn't pretty for Bulls' fans. Atlanta outrebounded Chicago 63-37, grabbed 43 percent of it own misses and held the Bulls to 16 percent on the defensive glass. Chicago remained competitive for most of the night thanks to a poor shooting night from the Hawks. However, Atlanta's dominance on the boards became the game's deciding factor when the Hawks' began to heat up during the game's final eight minutes. To a large extent, it was second-chance points that spurred the Hawks' 31-13 finishing kick. Chicago was playing without starters Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, two of the key reasons why the Bulls entered the game as one of the NBA's best-rebounding teams. Monday's game may have been a turning point in the Chicago's season.
Noah is out for the immediate future, as the plantar faciitis in his left foot has shown little improvement since it became an issue in January. Deng's swollen left knee kept him out on Monday and, without him, the Bulls are woefully short of rebounders. Derrick Rose banged knees with Atlanta's Mike Bibby and missed about a quarter of Monday's game. It was the second straight game that Rose suffered that kind of an injury. The Bulls have no time to lick their wounds, however, because when Memphis comes to town on Wednesday, the Bulls will be facing league's most dominant offensive rebounding team. After that, Dallas and Utah will be in town. The Bulls' sixth-place standing in the East is in serious jeopardy.
You can go back and read my in-game comments and get future Tweets at @bdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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