The Bulls exploded with huge runs in Orlando on Friday to handle the Magic 97-83, but responded by receiving an old fashioned beatdown in Atlanta on Saturday to the Hawks 109-94. In both games, the scores were a lot closer than they should've been.
In Orlando, Derrick Rose (21 points on 7-for-18, ten assists, eight rebounds) and Luol Deng (21 points on 8-for-16) scored like gods a points of the game; while Carlos Boozer was a rebounding machine (13 rebounds, 20 points on 9-for-19), reaping the benefits of Dwight Howard playing more the role of a help defender than gatekeeper at the rim.
Joakim Noah (four points on 2-for-9, ten rebounds) was embarrassed regularly by Howard (28 points on 11-for-18, 15 rebounds) -- SURPRISE!!! -- when the help didn't arrive from Deng or Boozer. When the help was there, Howard was forced to pass out or the help was aggressive enough to force turnovers. When Omer Asik (zero points, three rebounds in 8:37) was in the game, Howard struggled to back him down and was actually regularly taking shots further from the basket than the point at which he was receiving the ball. When Taj Gibson was on the floor with Boozer, Boozer was manning up with Howard and received great help from Taj. As bad as Noah looked, Howard does this to everyone and everyone needs help with Howard.
The help deficiency showed when Noah helped to prevent dribble penetration and the third effort to back him up was consistently absent, opening up clear passing lanes to Howard where he was wide open at the rim. When there was good help on the inside, the Bulls failed to close out on long-range shooters -- Orlando offensive bread-and-butter (7-for-20 on 3s. Fortunately for the Bulls, the Magic move the ball like a circus (17 turnovers).
The bad of Orlando was disguised by Orlando's bad, the Bulls owning the game in transition, and strokes of brilliance moving the ball and moving off the ball to make a strong defense lose energy. In Atlanta, the Hawks exponentially magnified these problems.
The Bulls managed to send their Saturday opponents to the line only six times (!!!) and still allowed 109 points; they out-rebounded The ATL 43-31 and frickin' lost. (Read that again if you can't believe it yourself.)
The Hawks are prone to get into stupid modes of jacking awful shots after too much dribbling. But the Bulls never recovered to shooters when they collapsed the paint, so they weren't forcing the over-dribbling into bad shots. Instead, the Hawks were seeing wide open long-range shots and converted 9-of-12 3s.
The interior help was even more brutal, allowing 54 points in the paint and 56.6% overall shooting.
When the Bulls have defensive breakdowns on possessions, it's usually due to either: (a) over-helping against the ball-handler to leave an inside man open for an easy bucket; (b) not helping enough in the low post where an easy bucket is created; or (c) over-helping from the perimeter to the interior and not recovering when the open shooter gets the kick-out from the inside. They managed to perform all three simultaneously on dozens of possessions against the Hawks.
Meanwhile, the Bulls were constantly trying to attack the Hawks zone with... pick n' roll?!? What? Not to mention, the Bulls were consistently standing still doing nothing on almost every first half possession in the halfcourt trying to read whether or not Atlanta was playing zone until there was ten seconds left in the shot clock. There's a fine line between lacking energy and actually making decisions badly (or being in constant indecision) because you're being shown as incapable counter a look. This is what was embarrassing.
To their defense, the Bulls were on the tail-end of a back-to-back, playing their third consecutive road game, playing their fifth game in seven days. Playing Rose (eight poiints on 3-for-10, six assists, five turnovers) and Deng (eight points on 5-for-13, one steal, one block, three turnovers) less in other games may have equaled more energy tonight, but nothing significant enough to make up such glaring deficiencies. As a reward, they got their rest, respectively playing 28:14 and 29:44.
That said, the bench played very well, being largely responsible for the Bulls' 24-point second quarter and entirely responsible for the 32 points in the 4th. I say that of the second quarter because the Hawks closed out the first half on an 18-2 run
Kyle Korver responded to Friday's call where he scored 18 (6-for-8, 5-for-7 on 3s in 31:10) with a 13-point performance in Atlanta (3-for-8, 3-for-5 on 3s, five assists in 35:15) with Richard Hamilton unable to play (groin), though Ronnie Brewer started both games. John Lucas III (16 points on 6-for-12, 2-for-4 on 3s) didn't have many problems with Atlanta's zone. He actually dribbled through the perimeter to quickly read the strong and weak sides, then acted accordingly. Jimmy Butler came out with a very aggressive 12 points in 12 minutes on 3-for-3 shooting and 6-for-6 at the line to go with three rebounds and was the only perimeter player to consistently prevent open shots.
Gibson (11 points on 5-for-8, two rebounds, two blocks in 28:45) came out strong when his help timing was there and Asik (eight points on 4-for-8 and 13 rebounds in 20:13) completed the frontcout ticket we could believe in for the night. Again, despite the more than two dozens of millions going to the two starters -- a low post ninja in a love affair with the fadeaway jumper and an energy guy huffing and puffing at the 6:00 mark of the first frickin' quater. This is turning into a sick joke.
You can't really oversimplify Saturday's awful showing by saying this was back-to-back-on-the-road weird stuff, as what was bad in spurts on Friday night was just more awful more often on Saturday night. But what was bad isn't a flaw in the system as the problem was the players not executing the system; nor was it a deficincy of talent, as the issue was energy and the Bulls are built on speed and youth. I'd go so far as to say the whole weekend was weird or the Bulls, Magic, and Hawks. The Magic was weirdly moving the ball too much, the Hawks were actually moving the ball, and the Bulls were over-commiting to first actions instead of being ready to react and recover.
The schedule is unforgiving and the Bulls playing their sixth game in nine nights on Monday, but it's back at home, hosting the confidence-boosting Pistons.
At 7-2, the Bulls are on pace to be 49-14 with three game left in the season, which should be enough to cruise to at least the second seed in the East. (Have you seen the garbage in Atlantic Division lately?) The sky isn't falling and though fatigue is a concern, a bright spot came out of this weekend: Tom Thibodeau threw in the towel at the right time in Atlanta.
A valid criticism is that he rides Rose and Deng too hard in certain wins, but we've seen since the Knicks' air strike at the United Center in October 2010 that he'll take 0% chance of winning with his bench not losing ground late rather than go nuts to milk small percentages of win probability by demanding his starters to perform at levels they're showing to be incapable. The comeback win against the Hawks earlier in the week was one where he gave Rose and Deng a couple of minutes to make a showing and they did; at no point was that evident in the second half on Saturday and Thibs sent a message, got some bench players some deserved PT, and some rest for the starters after a long week.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.