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A reminder of what makes Bulls succeed
Chicago’s 95-83 win over Atlanta not only gave the home-standing Bulls a 3-2 edge in their Eastern Conference semifinal series but was also all about memory.
WHAT THE HAWKS FORGOT
Indeed, for three quarters in Game 5 the Hawks displayed a photographic remembrance of things past. The ball zipped from side to side, creating open shots and even uncontested layups.
Smith abused Luol Deng in the pivot, and even made a couple of nifty passes.
After a few dribbles sucked the Bulls into double-teaming him, Johnson also willingly shared the ball.
In addition, Zaza Pachulia came off the bench to hit a jumper, drop a jump hook and bulldoze his way to several put-backs.
Jeff Teague’s quick bursts hoopward left Rose eating dust. And the Mighty Mite’s uncanny floaters repeatedly made the net dance.
The Hawks had erased an early 15-point deficit and entered the last quarter trailing 69-68. In other words, by exercising their collective muscle memory, the Hawks were flying high and the game was up for grabs.
But that’s when Atlanta suffered a fatal case of amnesia.
JJ went quickly into his one-on-one act and wound up shooting 6 of 15 and totaling 15 points. In so doing, the Hawks' offense screeched to a dead stop. No movement. No ball-reversal. Just JJ and four spectators wearing the same uniform.
No matter what the scoreboard said, the Hawks lost the game in the first few fourth-quarter minutes of Johnson’s solo performances.
It was no surprise that a pair of subsequent double teams forced Johnson into committing a pair of costly turnovers that irrevocably declawed the Hawks.
One has to believe that this regressive strategy was ordered by Larry Drew. When a coach suffers such a dramatic case of brainlock, then his team has no chance to win.
The disastrous fourth period also saw the Hawks' bigs providing no help whatsoever as time and again Rose shifted into warp speed and drained layup after layup.
And Smith? He wound up with 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, with one of his makes and four of misses coming on the long-distance jumpers that have been his ruin in the past. In the last 12 minutes, Smith had one low-post opportunity — but the roused Bulls’ defense smothered him and forced an awkward miss.
At the other end of the court, Smith’s habitual head-turning was responsible for Luol Deng making several backdoor cuts and scoring five of his 23 points with Smith nowhere in the picture.
You’ve heard of back to the future? Well, the Hawks moved ahead to the past.
WHAT THE BULLS REMEMBERED
Chicago's defense was the key to a wildly successful regular season, and that lockdown D showed up when it mattered Tuesday.
Not only were their two-timings of Johnson tighter in the fourth quarter, but their defensive shifting also denied the possibility of JJ’s making easy release passes. And when double-teaming was inappropriate — as when Johnson had the ball on a string above the key — Keith Bogans (and occasionally Luol Deng) hounded JJ into forced shots and desperate passes.
Carlos Boozer — 4 of 11, 12 rebounds, 11 points — hit a couple of early jumpers and turned a few set-up passes from Rose into dunks. But Boozer was also guilty of missing layups, setting a moving screen, looking to roll before setting sturdy screens, not showing up to help Deng defend Smith in the pivot, delivering a cheap shot to Smith and engaging in several obnoxious self-congratulatory howls and yowls after he scored.
Kudos to Tom Thibodeau for sitting Boozer in the endgame and putting Taj Gibson in his place. Gibson is much quicker and livelier than Boozer, and his 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting, combined with two assists and one block in a mere 20 minutes, were critical.
Deng remembered that moving without the ball would create the space he requires to initiate his long-legged moves and pull-up jumpers.
And, in the fourth quarter, the newly minted MVP recalled that his jumper simply doesn’t work on a regular basis. Overall, Rose was 11 of 24 with nine assists and 33 big points — but after bagging an early trey, he shot only 1 for 6 from mid-range and beyond.
Instead of casting up Hail Mary’s, Rose shifted into high gear and challenged the mostly absent Hawks’ bigs with a barrage of layups. It was Rose’s aggressive offense that got him to the stripe 13 times (making 10), and singlehandedly carried the load of Chicago’s late-game offense.
The MVP delivered and the Bulls experienced a productive 12 minutes of déjà vu. To win Game 6, and to compete with whoever emerges from the Miami-Boston conflict, Chicago will need to remember how and why it finished the regular season with the league’s best record.