Interesting that the Bulls had yet to play the Hawks this season, as before the year began I figured they were in a similar tier, one below the Heat/Celtics/Magic but better than most of the East (I believe I had the Bucks as contemporaries, too. whoops). As the season unfolded though, the Bulls have proven themselves to instead be amongst the best, while the Hawks stayed in their usual projected 45-50 win range, perhaps their current record itself being a bit of a farce.
So to see the Bulls jump out to a 14-0 lead, and having a game-high lead of 19 at one point, that re-ranking of the East seemed legit: the Hawks looked fairly overmatched if not as much by personnel* as execution: the Bulls were finding open shots, forcing turnovers, dominating the boards. The Atlanta fans (and they seemed to be almost matched by Bulls supporters tonight) have a tradition of standing up until the Hawks score, and it was starting to get uncomfortable to watch.
*actually, the Hawks personnel does look starkly worse in their frontcourt bench, which is awful and has been well documented by the fantastic Hawks blog Hoopinion all season. Zaza Pachulia is usually active but besides that it's a trainwreck that's exposed especially on a night where Josh Smith is out. As much as I roll my eyes when Neil Funk starts to bash opponents, I had to agree with his cringing delivery whenever Josh Powell put up a shot.
Even as the Bulls themselves cooled off that initial burst, they weren't impressing so much offensively as they were simply not letting the Hawks get anything going themselves, finishing with a 33-point first half. Relying too much on isolation, and with Joe Johnson trying to beat Chris Bosh as worst opponent performance all season (finishing 5-20), the Hawks looked like a team that indeed had talent but not in the Bulls class.
I still think the Bulls are a class above, and maybe it was why I didn't even process the Hawks coming back and winning that game until after it was over.
Even at the Hawks worst points tonight, Al Horford was keeping them alive, and wound up being a part of every late possession. Horford showed astounding proficiency at the jumper (even hitting a 3-pointer), driving when the Bulls started closing out, and was a beast on the glass with 16 rebounds (7 offensive). He played so well and was such a huge part of their comeback I almost give him a pass for throwing the ball in the air like he won the NCAA title (and hugged Joakim as part of that feeling too?).
Meanwhile, I actually thought Omer Asik was the best Bulls big man of the night. And credit to him and all for a great game (and doing the best to slow Hortford by blocking a couple jumpers) but that's not a great sign.
Adding to the facilitation of such an opponent comeback was Derrick Rose having one of his worst nights of the season, only 12 points in 5-21 shooting (nearly the same as Joe Johnson, but it looked a lot better than Johnson's shot selection, I swear) along with 6 turnovers. The team as a whole did a poor job taking care of the ball (and really between both teams the middle of the game was borderline unwatchable) and it was a godsend to the Atlanta 'offense' that they could run instead of handing the ball to Johnson.
Maybe that Kirk Hinrich can really defend after all? Between their use of zone and frequent switching, the Hawks defense is certainly unconventional, but I'm not sure what was with Rose or his team tonight, it's been a different-looking team on the road all season. And though their last two road demolitions of the Bucks and the Wiz made it look like a corner was turned, the Hawks proved that while not in that top tier, they're pretty good. The Bulls still had a chance to hold on as Kyle Korver hit 2 huge threes but missed a 3rd, but soon the Bulls will have to visit Orlando and Miami.