In their dismal 86-73 loss in Chicago that evened their Eastern Conference semifinal series after two games, the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated once again that they are the NBA’s most schizophrenic team.
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The “good” Hawks are active and intense. They briskly move the ball on offense, clean the glass and rotate with precision on defense. When the Hawks are flying high, Joe Johnson is hitting jumpers, Josh Smith is under control, Jamal Crawford routinely makes spectacular shots and Al Horford is money from mid-range. That’s exactly how Atlanta beat Orlando and also won the opening gambit against the Bulls.
It was the “bad” Hawks, however, who showed up Wednesday night in the United Center. For sure, Luol Deng’s spidery defense, the Bulls’ alert rotations and occasional double teams were major factors in Johnson managing only 15 shots (making seven).
On the other hand, Smith had only himself to blame for his abysmal 4-of-14, four-turnover performance. That’s because he forced a total of eight shots/passes/drives, with most of his turnovers being of the unforced variety. Smith remains the most underachieving super talent in the league.
Crawford was simply AWOL — 2 for 10 — with every one of his shots taken under extreme defensive pressure and most of them forced.
While Horford accumulated 14 rebounds and six assists, the rim seemed to contract whenever he shot — 3 for 12.
Indeed, the only one who came to play for the Hawks was Jeff Teague — 7 for 14, 21 points.
Sloppy, discombobulated offense coupled with turned heads and late or non-existent defensive rotations kept the Hawks playing uphill for virtually the entire game.
Even so, Atlanta got what it wanted in Chicago: one victory that temporarily erased the Bulls’ home-court advantage. But which face will the Hawks present to their hometown faithful when the series moves to Atlanta?
Despite pulling out the must-win game, the Bulls didn’t exactly distinguish themselves.
Derrick Rose celebrated his MVP award by scoring 25 points, recording 10 assists and proving that he is indeed the one indispensable player in Chicago’s offensive game plan. However, most of Rose’s eight turnovers resulted from his characteristic poor decision-making in the lane, and that nearly earned him a rather dubious triple-double.
Yes, Rose had little trouble driving the ball to the cup against the inferior defense of Teague. But he also unleashed an unacceptable total of 27 shots — including shooting 4 for 12 on jumpers. Given that Carlos Boozer and Deng combined for 25 shots, Rose’s relentless barrage is a sign of just how unbalanced Chicago’s offense really is. Alas, shooting too much has become a habit for young Rose, and sooner or later the Bulls will pay dearly for his youthful exuberance.
Otherwise, Boozer was just about useless. His defense was atrocious (as usual), three of his shots were swatted, he botched a pair of layups and he was hardly a factor. One play was symbolic of Boozer’s timid impotence: He posted up in good position but quickly returned the entry pass. Then he settled into even better position, before he just as quickly kicked back the second entry pass. The point being that Boozer has no explosiveness on the low post and no confidence in his ability to score down there.
All of his four buckets were generated by Rose — three on tight screen/rolls and one on a drive-and-dish that found Boozer by his lonesome at the stripe for an uncontested jumper.
At the end of the game, Boozer was on the bench while the younger, more athletic and more competitive Taj Gibson got the available daylight.
What other flaws were evident in Chicago’s game?
Kyle Korver shot mostly blanks — 1 for 9. And Deng was MIA for most of the first half.
For sure, Chicago’s top-of-the-line defense helped the Hawks self-destruct. But the Bulls’ unsung hero was Joakim Noah. Just consider his stat line — 6 for 8 from the field, 7 for 8 on freebies, 19 points, 14 rebounds (half of which were retrievals of shots missed by his teammates), two assists, three steals, and one block.
In fact, it was Noah’s relentless hustle that keyed Chicago’s 58-39 rebounding edge, and his four put-backs that provided eight gift points in the low-scoring game. Plus, with Boozer inoperative in the low post, Noah was the fall-back option — scoring six points on his three iso opportunities in the paint.
Also credit Noah’s quick-footed, long-armed defensive harassments for turning ostensibly easy layups into misses.
If Rose was the regular season MVP, Noah was the most valuable Bulls player in Game 2.
Still, Chicago gave absolutely no indications that it has the balance, the patience, the firepower or the poise to be a bona fide championship-caliber team.