It took the Chicago Bulls 5 games to learn not to overlook the Indiana Pacers and look ahead to the rest of the playoffs. It only took them 1 game to forget that lesson. After sputtering and struggling at both ends of the floor for four games against Indy, the Bulls finally put together a great performance in game 5 to close out the Pacers. The team seemed relieved after the win, and coach Thibs explained that all year the team took things step-by-step, and when they started paying attention to the talk that they would roll through Indy and looking ahead, that’s when the struggles occurred. They finally got focused for game 5. Just six days later, the Bulls are overlooking yet another underdog opponent. The Bulls came out lazy on defense and rusty on offense early in game one, and the Atlanta Hawks took advantage, beating Chicago 103-95 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Joe Johnson scored 34 points on 12-of-18 shooting, and was an unconscious 5-for-5 from 3-point land. Jamal Crawford had a hot hand as well, scoring 22 points off the pine for Atlanta.
The key to the game was Atlanta getting off to a fast start and setting the tone early. The Bulls lackluster defense allowed Atlanta to shoot 59% from the field in the first quarter while building a 10 point lead, and they shot a miserable 29% themselves for the quarter. “That [the start] was critical,” explained Hawks coach Larry Drew. “When we start a game out fast, we get the shots we want and play defense. Psychologically it turns everything around in our favor.” Nobody on the Bulls seemed to know why they came out so flat in this game, but they weren’t making excuses either. “We had a hard time scoring, and a hard time defending to start the game,” said Thibodeau. “We were not challenging shots, we were not keeping the ball in front, we were not finishing our defense, and we played low energy offense. You can’t do that in the playoffs. Crawford and Joe Johnson got wherever they wanted. We brought that on ourselves.” Despite getting off to the slow start, the Bulls did manage to get themselves back into the game. The “Bench Mob” came up big in the second quarter with energy and defense and got the team going. The Bulls shot 57% in the 2nd and cut the lead down to just one point at the break, but the defense still wasn’t great, as the Hawks shot over 50% in the quarter as well.
The Bulls finally seemed to really get things going early in the third. Rose scored 3 straight Bulls buckets to open the half, Boozer followed with 3 straight of his own, and a Noah dunk moments later gave the Bulls their biggest lead of the night up 6 with 4:11 to go in the third quarter. Joe Johnson went back to work however, scoring 8 of Atlanta’s final 12 points in the quarter and leading them to a 1-point lead going into the 4th. The Bulls committed a couple of foolish fouls down the stretch in the third, one giving Joe Johnson a 3-point play on a short jumper, and the other putting Zaza Pachulia on the line with less than a second remaining in the frame, and his 2 free throws put Atlanta ahead for good. The beginning of the 4th quarter resembled the start of the game, as the Hawks scored the first 8 points of the period and 15 of the first 19, building the lead all the way up to 12 points. Chicago never got it closer than 6 after that. Crawford and Johnson combined for 21 4th quarter points in putting the game away. There was no late rally in this one for Derrick Rose and the Bulls, who made a habit of those in the first round and throughout the regular season. The loss gives the home court advantage to the Hawks, and increases the confidence of an Atlanta team that seems to have plenty of it right now.
This game had to feel like a huge monkey off the backs of the Atlanta players, since they are fighting a lot of history here. The franchise had lost 15 straight second round playoff games, including being swept out of the second round by Orlando and Cleveland the last two seasons. As a matter of fact, this is the first time the Hawks have led a second round series since 1988, and they haven’t advanced past this round since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams. Throw in the somewhat surprising stat that no number 5 seed has ever gone to the NBA finals, and it seems like a lot of chips are stacked against Atlanta. They seem to be just fine with that. It lets them fly under the radar. When asked if he thought the Hawks were underestimated coming into the playoffs, Joe Johnson’s answer was simple and a bit understated: “Yes, but we’re a confident group. As long as we’ve got each other’s backs in the locker room, we could care less what they say about us.” The team’s actions don’t really back up Johnson’s words. They say that they don’t care what people say about them, but I believe Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson would disagree with that. After a game against Chicago on April 10th, Nelson could be heard on the TV broadcast telling Derrick Rose that “We’ll catch you in the second round.” They were already slated to play Atlanta in the first round, and were clearly giving the Hawks very little respect. Well, after beating Orlando and sending Nelson home, the Hawks left 4 tickets for him at will call for the game Monday night so he could still catch Rose in round 2.
The Bulls lone standout performer in game one was Luol Deng, who scored 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting and grabbed 6 rebounds. Derrick Rose’s final numbers looked good with 24 points and 10 assists, but he shot just 11-of-27 from the field and a miserable 0-for-7 in the opening quarter as well as having a couple of bad turnovers. Rose also failed to get to the line even once, which is a clear sign that he wasn’t being aggressive enough. The lack of aggression may have been a result of the Bulls’ poor defense. Rose loves to get out and run in transition, and a lot of his free throws come from catching defenders out of position on the break. It’s hard to get out on the break without stops. “What happened tonight,” explained Deng, “is that they’re making shots and we were going against their set defense. We weren’t going out there and running, and we are at our best when we get out and run.” One bright spot for the Bulls came in the 3rd quarter performance of Carlos Boozer. Boozer was questionable for the game with a toe injury, but played and was very effective in the second half after struggling early. He ended up with 14 points and 8 rebounds, but certainly appeared healthy. He even jumped to grab a rebound after the halftime buzzer had sounded. The Bulls got a real scare in the waning seconds of the game as Derrick Rose stepped on Jamal Crawford’s foot and came up limping on the same ankle he sprained against Indiana, but he should be ok for game 2. “It’s fine,” insisted Rose, “I just took my time walking off.” The Bulls can ill-afford to lose Rose now that the team is behind by a game.
While everyone in the Bulls’ locker room has a theory for what went wrong on defense in game one, no one seems to have an explanation as to where the Bulls’ edge from game 5 against the Pacers went. “I don’t really know the reason why,” stated Rose. “Coach always says play with an edge. It wasn’t there tonight.” Luol Deng had an almost identical response: “I don’t know. We’ve got to play to what we’re capable of, we can’t measure the games. We’ve got to get back to playing with an edge.” Coach Thibodeau was equally dumbfounded. When asked where the edge was Monday night, Thibs answered, “That’s a great question. When you are coming off 3 days of practice and 2 days prior to that off, you should have high energy and high intensity. We didn’t have that. If you don’t have that edge, you are asking for trouble. Chicago had better find that edge, and quick. Game 2 already looks like a must-win for the Bulls. You can’t fall behind 2-0 when the first two games are at home. That is an almost impossible hole to climb out of. It’s time for the Bulls to show what they are made of.
All season long, the Bulls have played championship caliber basketball by following a simple formula. They always take things one game at a time, they play smothering defense, they dominate the boards, and on offense, they run through MVP Derrick Rose. They seem to have forgotten that formula in the playoffs. Through 6 games, they have played smothering defense just once and dominated the boards only twice. That is not Bulls basketball. The team is in a debilitating identity crisis that is fueling the confidence of a very dangerous and hungry Atlanta team. Now is the time for Coach Thibodeau do demonstrate why he is coach of the year, and for the Bulls to remember how they got to 62 wins and the overall number one seed. If they can’t wake up for Atlanta, they don’t need to worry about what will happen with Boston, Miami and L.A. down the road, they’ll be headed home early. Was game one a wake-up call? “I hope so,” answered Rose.” I just hope we don’t wake up too late.” This is a critical point in the season for these young Bulls, and how they respond Wednesday night should go a long way toward telling us if this team is ready for the championship stage this season. Professor Thibs needs to get back in the lab and resurrect that formula that has made the Bulls the best team in the league, or the Hawks might be giving the Bulls tickets to watch them play next round.