The Hawks looked to have the desperation of a team knowing they couldn't go back to Chicago facing an elimination game (and rightfully so), but they didn't win tonight because they played hard. They played well, played smart, played disciplined, to an positively un-Hawks level. The Hawks technically had a better offensive game in the series opener, but that came with the caveat of perimeter players making ridiculous shots. Something the Hawks can do, but not viewed as sustainable.
And this may not be sustainable either, as it's happened so rare in this team's history, but it was certainly more impressive. Where the Bulls used to simply leave Josh Smith to bring defensive help knowing he'd just stand outside the paint, in tonight's game Smith was far more active, aggressive, and not only going for inside points but creating opportunities for others. The (literally) groan-inducing shot selection was still there at times, but for him to get 8 assists shows how not only were the Bulls often seen making poor decisions on rotations, for once the Hawks were making them pay by actually passing the ball.
And while I don't think the Bulls played complacently (too easy of an excuse), as a fan I was completely unworried that they would lose this game. When Steve Kerr kept repeating that the Bulls were in a good position to be so close against a team playing so well, I was nodding. The Hawks were shooting a far higher percentage, but the Bulls were keeping close with free throws. Not only just free throws but ones generated by Derrick Rose, usually a sign that he's on his game (and the biggest factor in a potential title run). They didn't dominate the glass but were in control, and unlike many of the efforts we've seen in the playoffs were also keeping turnovers low.
But while I was obviously right in figuring a close game was better than the Bulls facing a deficit like they saw in game one, I also believe that in close/late situations these two teams are fairly even. The Bulls have Derrick Rose, but Atlanta has shotmakers of their own that can score on any defense, and especially against the version of the Bulls D we had been seeing leading up to that point tonight.
But a 16-4 Hawks run to end the game was pretty shocking. Perhaps fueled by seeing his fellow Bulls missing shots all night, Derrick Rose was slightly more single-minded than usual, and that hero-ball didn't lead to a heroic performance. Some was probably his ankle not still being absolutely back to form. No doubt it's closer than it was, the epic game three performance as clear evidence. But that was fueled by an aberrational night from 3-point range, and even seeing Rose successfully get to the line 11 times tonight didn't have me convinced he's fully healthy. That said, the Hawks bigs also played well in terms of challenging without fouling. Combining those factors made for seeing Rose make the drives he'd usually make, but without the usual basket or trip to the line to show for it.
Meanwhile on the other end of the court, Jeff Teague was taking advantage of his matchup on Kyle Korver. On a night where the Bulls were getting no outside shooting, from Korver especially, Thibs still rolled with him in the hope that he'd get hot (sauced) again. It didn't happen, and Teague made him pay in breaking down the initial wall of the Bulls defense. Teague had similar success against other defenders, of course, but that final stretch illustrated what the Hawks can look like when they have a mismatch and actually use team basketball to exploit it. Smith's night was already mentioned, but Al Horford had 20, Joe Johnson with 24, Jamal Crawford with 12, and it was created off of ball movement. This was Horford's best game of the series, but it wasn't as if he finally started figuring out Joakim Noah's post defense as much as him being the beneficiary of a poor Bulls rotation earlier in the possession. Even new starting Center Jason Collins had two dunks.
And the Rose show couldn't keep up, perhaps with some fatigue a factor as well, playing the entire 2nd half and 44 minutes overall. But, again, it was a team effort of poor shooting throughout the night that led to that point in the first place. The Bulls only received 5 points from over 54 minutes of Korver+Brewer+Bogans+Watson. As a team the Bulls were 3-16 from three. Luol Deng had one of his worst games of the playoffs, and while Noah was active he wasn't productive enough. That's entirely too much pressure on Rose.
And though we've seen some impotence from the non-Rose perimeter at times before, we know it's usually not quite this pathetic. And as they return closer to their norms it'll be fantastic if the bigs performed on offense as well as they did tonight. Carlos Boozer had his best offensive game in a while, starting with a few jumpers and moving closer to the rim as the game went on toward the much-needed strong inside finishes to finish with a very efficient game, persevering through first-half foul trouble (and his own injury, of course). His backup may have had an even better performance: Taj Gibson had 9 points on 3 shots, and though he somehow had zero rebounds in his 13 minutes, had 4 blocks and 2 steals including a fantastic open-court swipe of Jamal Crawford that was punctuated by a dunk. And I love that Omer Asik was given more time (DNP for Kurt Thomas), and he was part of a fine end to the 3rd quarter which was one of the best Bulls stretches of the night.
The extended Asik time was part of a few peculiar lineup tweaks for Thibs tonight. Bogans injured his ankle before his usual initial stint was over, so later in the half he actually checked in to a game for perhaps the first time all year. We got our first look at Rose/Watson/Korver/Taj/Asik, as even seeing Rose/Watson/Korver is extremely rare. It was to matchup with the Hawks small-ball and hopefully get some more shooting on the floor, but a strange time to be using inexperienced lineups. Gibson was then not on the court for that final Hawks surge that put the game out of reach*. As mentioned, Boozer was playing well, but in a game where the defense was often slipping, it was usually (not exclusively, mind you) Boozer as the culprit. Granted, that's who he is even when performing at his peak, and it's not as if Thibodeau is going to bench him unless completely forced to like in game two: I understand why Thibs feels that the long-term need of getting him back on track was important. However between Boozer and a completely ineffective Korver, the offensive tradeoff proved not to be worth the sacrifice in defense on this night.
Thibodeau also ran out of timeouts, and lost track (with help from the Phillips Arena scoreboard) to the point where it actually cost the Bulls a technical foul. And sure, Vinny Del Negro would've been roasted for a similar snafu, but he was a terrible basketball coach. But while Thibs has had better nights, and his team's defense even more so, he's proven to be a fairly great coach, and I'm still confident the Bulls can win what's now a best-of-three series with two of those games on the Bulls home floor. Besides, great night aside, it's not like the Hawks have fully transformed their attack. That would be a real problem.
*about right when I started worrying that the Hawks even had a chance to win in the first place. It was just a weird watch for me, from calm to angry in about 2 possessions.